I rearranged my scarf to cover my nose; pulled my fingers out of my gloves and curled them into my palms, making a fist. "It's freezing...it's freezing!" I kept repeating to myself as I power-walked back to my cozy flat. Walking around the block onto my street I saw my neighbour, Ruth. Ruth who says "Good morning...God bless" to every passerby. The kindest person I have ever not spoken to. Ruth is homeless, and as I walk by, on this bitterly cold night, I am complaining about shivering; on my way back to a heated, safe home.
Homelessness is a terrifying idea at the best of times but come winter it scares me to think that Ruth may not survive. That's a frightening truth. As the Co-Founder of CRACK + CIDER (an organisation that helps homeless people) it dawned on me that although we can't offer every homeless person a home, we can make them feel more at home: I have no excuse for not responding to Ruth's daily ray of light.
Every day, as someone on the street, you would be ignored by over 90% of the people who walk by you. And that's the best of it: 'the homeless' are villainised by society; we talk about 'us' and 'them'; we look down on them, physically; and some councils have even tried to make homelessness illegal. Even charities objectify 'the homeless person' in their communications that guilt-trip you into giving a small amount of cash to ease the burden of that guilt.
Although we would love to give every homeless person in London a home, unfortunately we can't. But we do believe that there is something small that everyone can do to help and it doesn't involve your money or time. We asked a number of people; homeless and not; to tell us what 'home' meant to them. The resounding answer was that 'home' is a feeling:
"I don't feel truly at home anywhere, though I guess right now it would be the doorway of St Paul's Cathedral where I usually sleep. I can feel at home in unfamiliar places if in the right company, people that make me feel love, peace and acceptance can make anywhere feel like home."
With this, we believe that although we can't offer the 7,600 homeless people in London shelter we can make them feel more at home. We can smile, say hello, squash the 'us' vs. 'them' rhetoric we've been fed our whole lives.
The amazing thing is, we believe this will actually go some small way to help homeless people out of the crisis point that they are currently in. Although this might seem crazy, a number of studies have shown that moments of genuine, kind-hearted human connection can have a great impact.
A scientific study formed the basis of our entire understanding of addiction. In it, a rat is put in a cage with two water bottles: one laced with heroin and one isn't. Over time, the rat learns that one has heroin in it and keeps drinking it until it kills itself. This framed the belief that addiction starts with the chemical in the drug: if you take enough of it, you'll become addicted and then eventually you'll die.
In the 1970's another Psychologist came along and thought that the experiment was odd. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So, Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It was a beautiful labyrinth of tunnels and coloured balls and the best rat food in town. And importantly; plenty of friends. He then put the heroin-laced water, and regular water, in Rat Park. What happened?
"The rats with good lives didn't like the drugged water [...] none of them died"
Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It's how we get our satisfaction. So the opposite of a destructive situation is not changing the situation. It's human connection.
With this in mind, we can't give a home to everyone without one but we can make them feel more at home. And actually, that's powerful beyond belief.