The invisibility of homelessness

Tessa Coombes - PhD student in Social Policy, University of Bristol

Tessa Coombes – PhD student in Social Policy, University of Bristol

The emphasis of this post is a bit of a departure from my normal topics, but related in a number of different ways to issues about housing, homelessness and social mobility. It has come about as a result of a number of things that have influenced me over the last few weeks. Some of those influences have been comments made in talks and discussions, whilst others have been the result of me opening my eyes and seeing what is around me. All too frequently we walk around the places we are familiar with without seeing what is right in front of us, without thinking about why something is the way it is.

In the last couple of months I have been to a whole load of talks about housing, mental health, health and wellbeing, social mobility and inequalities. I’ll write elsewhere about some of the consistent policy strands that came through many of these talks, but my focus here is on homelessness and social ‘immobility’.

In one talk I attended the presenter set out the extent to which homelessness has risen in recent years, in Bristol and nationally. The statistics make depressing reading, 90% increase in Bristol in the last 3 years and with the promise of more cuts to services, changes to social rented housing and benefits, this is likely to get worse. Equally shocking is the number of ex-servicemen who are sleeping on our streets, up to 1 in 3 of all homeless according to Crisis. The reasons for this are many and varied but one of the common themes is the feeling of shame associated with being in that position and the reluctance to seek help.

As a result of taking part in all these talks and discussions, about social inequality, homelessness, and poverty I found myself seeing my own city, Bristol, in a different way. I started to reflect once more about how I experience the city compared to others and how I take certain things for granted. On my way to and from some of these talks, at the Watershed in central Bristol, I walked past a young person wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a dog for company, several times. He was sleeping alongside a bar and outside the Bristol Green Capital unit, where hundreds of people must have walked past him all day long, and largely ignored his existence. The irony of the situation was one of the things that made me stop and think – I’d just come from a discussion about homelessness, where we had talked about why people sleep on the streets, frequently don’t ask for help and see themselves outside of society. We talked about our reaction to these people, how we ignore them and fail to even see them. We’d been talking about making Bristol a place for everyone, where opportunity and hope are part of what makes Bristol great. But when confronted with a homeless person, we walk on by, pretending not to see.

This whole debate then reminded me about a situation I found myself in a few years ago in an area of Bristol I know well and have walked through for many years. There was a young man, wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting on a bench in the freezing cold, just gently asking passers by if they could spare a little cash to help him out. Most people were ignoring him, but then the chap walking along just in front of me stopped and shouted at the man on the bench, berating him for begging and telling him to get a job. The young man (we’ll call him Greg for now) looked stunned and didn’t respond, other people seemed to speed up their walking and move on as quickly as they could. At the time my first inclination was to walk on quickly and ignore this, after all what’s it got to do with me? Then I thought about it some more and I hesitated, then stopped. The shouty man had moved on by then, thankfully. So I sat down next to Greg on the bench and asked him if he was ok (quite possibly a really stupid question), but he responded with a grimace and then a smile, saying that he had been worried things would turn nasty, that he would be attacked and was just glad the shouty man had gone. He thanked me for stopping and was incredibly polite.

We got chatting, I stayed there for well over an hour talking to him (after I’d popped round the corner to get us both a hot drink and a snack). He seemed to want to talk, so I just listened, I was concerned not to ask too many questions but was equally curious about why he was in the situation he was. So, as ‘Greg’ explained to me, he was an ex-serviceman, invalided out with PTSD, his partner had left him and he was alone, without a job and without anywhere to live. He’d tried to get a job but because of the PTSD he found it hard to adapt and fit in sometimes, as he put it, his temper and depression occasionally got the better of him. So he’d come back to Bristol, which is where he’d grown up, and moved around the parks and open spaces, sleeping out most of the time, begging for money to buy food and surviving day to day. He was articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and ashamed of his situation. He blamed no one but himself for this, although he did admit that he thought there should be more support from the armed forces for people like him, at the point when they are discharged as well as later on. All he wanted was a chance – a chance to prove himself again, to get a job, to do something worthwhile, to make him feel proud and valued. It was difficult to get up and walk away from our discussion, to leave him there on the bench, open to abuse but mostly invisible to everyone, but that’s what I had to do in the end.

I often wonder what became of Greg, as I never actually saw him again. The situation left me feeling powerless but also ashamed that we as a city and a country don’t do more to help those who have put their lives on the line for us, and ashamed and disappointed that our automatic response is often to pretend they don’t exist. Behind every homeless person on our streets is a story, often a depressing, sad and complex story. I’ve heard politicians and policy makers say that some of these people don’t want to be helped, as if that is something that excuses from trying. Sorry but I just don’t believe that, no one chooses to live like that, on the streets, in the cold and the rain, at constant risk of violence and abuse. There are many different reasons why people may refuse the help offered, or not feel able to accept or even seek out help. Maybe they just don’t want to be helped in the way we are offering, maybe they need a very different type of help and support, or maybe they just feel we don’t actually care that much or that they’re not worth it?

The challenge for me, and many others, is working out what we can do to help, who are the people that can take the decisions that will prove decisive and life changing for homeless people and how we can raise the profile of this very difficult and complex issue. A good starting point are the many charities that do help homeless people, such as Crisis and Shelter, as well as those that focus on helping ex-servicemen who are having difficulty adjusting to life after the forces, such as Rock2Recovery. But surely more can and should be done?

In a wealthy and prosperous city like Bristol homelessness should be a thing of the past. Instead of which it’s actually increasing, it’s getting worse! We have some excellent charities in Bristol and nationally providing some outstanding services to homeless people and ex-servicemen, but still the problem exists and is increasing. Someone at the Bristol Mayor’s Annual Lecture asked if we could become the first city to ensure no ex-servicemen were left to sleep on our streets. An excellent question and a superb ambition. If anywhere can do it, then surely Bristol can?

This blog was originally posted on Tessa’s blog: