Beneath the Blanket

I watched BBC 4’s documentary On the Streets last night about London’s rough sleepers and was reminded again that homelessness is just a blanket term that covers a multitude of issues and personal stories.

As such the term homelessness is unhelpful as a description and does a disservice to the personal story and mix of complex problems that often lies beneath. Passers by see the superficial problem – homelessness – and can dismiss any sense of unease with either a coin to help or a stock explanation of blame.

I started volunteering on the streets of London thirty four years ago, on the St Mungo Soup Run in the early hours of the winter mornings, and it appears that not much has changed for those who have rejected or been rejected by the helping services. There are now, of course, more services for those with the most intransigent problems to be rejected by, and much better laws and rights than in 1976 to be ignored or flouted by authorities who do not know how with difficult customers.

I am not really surprised. Society hasn’t changed or become more tolerant or any less punishing of those who don’t fit into the consumer/worker mould. On the Streets lifted the blanket and revealed some of the extreme characters and stories that you only meet on the extreme margins of our society. What has changed is that many of the accents – often Irish or Scottish in my time in London – are now central or eastern European: another reason to blame them or dismiss any sense of duty to care.

A lot of our efforts at Cyrenians are now focused on catching the problem early and preventing the spiral and escalation of problems that ends on the streets. But I watched last night’s programme with a growing sense of anxiety about the consequences for the hardest to help of there being less state provision and helping services filled by those who are easier to assist.

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