Recent data shows there were almost 600 homeless deaths in 2018 according to the Office for National Statistics. Of course, charities have condemned ‘horrifying’ number of deaths on streets and in shelters. As a charity founder, I can say I’m among them.
Many have called the deaths “a national disgrace” blaming soaring homelessness on austerity, expensive rent and a lack of social housing. I agree. It’s not just the government though, when it comes to the role we as society play, I believe compassion fatigue and burnout is a major factor.
Compassion fatigue is the growing issue of indifference to charitable appeals and causes, usually experienced as a result of being exposed to a high frequency or number of disasters and tragedies.
A former soldier, an astrophysicist and a Big Issue seller are among the hundreds who have died this year. They were found dead in shop doorways, with some lying dead for months before their bodies were found. The role that compassion fatigue plays is that as a society we have simply stopped caring. Not because we mean to, but because we’re overwhelmed and jaded. The term compassion fatigue was first used in the study of burnout in nurses nearly two decades ago who noticed a “loss of the ability to nurture” that was noted in some nurses in emergency department settings:
“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often...we experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.” – C. Figley, 1995
Don’t get me wrong, I have experienced bursts of this feeling too; how many of us have sat feeling helpless about appeals because the situation never seems to improve? It’s overwhelming and upsetting. The difference is when these feelings spiral into something bigger. Compassion fatigue is rarely sudden, it’s the gradual lessening of compassion over time.
The symptoms include desensitisation (a diminished emotional response to others negative situations, usually after repeated exposure to it). Judgement comes with the territory, with many questioning if charity donations even reach, help or impact the cause, or what a homeless person uses the money for. As much as I understand the rise of 24-hour news, YouTube and social media have exposed us to so much suffering that it’s easy to see how compassion fatigue is on the rise, we can’t just accept it. This has become a real obstacle to our spirit of giving. Eighty per cent of homeless people in the UK experienced no support or advice the last time they were moved on by police or council workers.
As the wider community, we really need to look into how compassion fatigue can be combated. Looking into the facts is a sure way to remind yourself that giving helps. It’s easy to check if a charity is real, you can search for their charity registration number online via the charity commission website and see their charity overview, financials, key documents and a list of trustees, ambassadors and volunteers. Most modern charities are well-run and work efficiently and It’s worth remembering that charities need buildings and staff.
In the domestic abuse charity sector, people often don’t want to donate because they say “why doesn’t she just leave?” Each year, Children In Need appeals raise millions but there is a significant portion of people who refuse to donate because “it doesn’t make any difference anyway.” In the case of homelessness, we seem to judge how they got there, who was to blame; we judge them as addicts or ‘low lives’ when every single one of us could be a paycheck away from losing everything.
A recent YouGov survey found 51% of people think empathy has declined. We live in a world that desperately needs more compassion. The last thing the world needs is for society to become so jaded and judgemental that we stop giving and helping. By being conscious of the warning signs of compassion fatigue, we can prevent it and continue to contribute to the world around us with one act of kindness at a time.
I’ve recently finished Michelle Obama’s book ‘Becoming’. In it, she talks about her journey as a high-earning solicitor, following her mother’s advice to “Make money, worry about being happy later”. Like me though, money was never Michelle’s god; she actually thrived working in the non-for-profit sector for Public Allies, an organisation encouraging young people to work on social issues in nonprofit groups and government agencies. She worked there nearly four years and her passion was such that she set fundraising records for the organisation that still stood 12 years after she left. It’s that feeling of giving back, there’s nothing like it – there’s nothing more rewarding.
Any one of us could end up homeless; just like so many causes, any one of us could get cancer, suffer with mental health problems, need a blood donor. None of us are immune to anything which is why we mustn’t lose our empathy, we must keep giving. Those of us who have been down and out at any time in our lives were probably helped at one time by that one family member, one friend or colleague who helped. Just one person who listened and cared. One person who dug deep and gave generously because, as the Yoruba proverb says: “when you give, you get ten times over.”
I don’t believe that any one person can make a difference alone, which is why I constantly collaborate. It takes a village to make a change. It’s the end of another year and if this season means nothing else, let it be a time of giving.