22 April 2015  

- originally published on the "Go For It" Church of Scotland Blog

I interview homeless and formerly homeless men and women, hoping to give their stories some life, to put a face behind the work we do to shelter and support men and women who have nowhere to call home. The charity I work with partners with churches in London and relies on hundreds of volunteers who cook, serve food, and provide a warm welcome to our homeless guests. Statistics are of course the foundation of measuring effectiveness, but behind each statistic are an infinite variety of stories of personal tragedy and hope.

 

Some homeless guests feel comfortable sharing their stories with the promise of anonymity. Others will agree to have their photograph taken, but are unwilling to share personal details.

 

Either way, I struggle with the exchange we make. They share their story, and the only thing they get back is thanks, and the hope that the information will bring support to the charity that has supported them. I understand why many are guarded. Some say potential employees might not take well to someone who has been homeless.

 

“There exists in our minds”, wrote Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, “a sort of ideal or typical tramp … a repulsive, rather dangerous creature, who would die rather than work or wash, and wants nothing but to beg, drink and rob hen-houses … I am not saying, of course, that most tramps are ideal characters; I am only saying that they are ordinary human beings, and that if they are worse than other people it is the result and not the cause of their way of life”.

 

Orwell published this in 1933, but the bias or mental image lingers of homeless people as lazy, drug-addicted beggars, who do not want to live within the confines of civilized society.

 

Sharing a meal together, as volunteers and homeless guests do in our shelters, helps break down misconceptions. A volunteer from London's St Columba’s Church of Scotland recently commented: “The ‘guests’ are a very mixed group of people from diverse backgrounds and always appear so grateful for the work the volunteers do.”

 

It’s hard to not see our commonalities when we sit around a table together. The myths often do not hold up.

 

Myth 1: Homeless people are dirty beggars.

Truth: Most people who are homeless do not beg. Homeless people spend their days in libraries, in art galleries, in day centres, in parks and many other places. Most people that I’ve met who are homeless may look a bit dishevelled, but many people work hard to find free showers and stay clean. “It helps me feel better about myself after I’ve taken a shower,” one homeless man recently told me.

 

Myth 2: Homeless people are lazy and do not want another way of life.

Truth: More than 99% of the men and women who come to London’s largest emergency night shelter engage with the casework team and are looking to change their circumstances.

 

Myth 3: Homeless people are dangerous

Truth: Some homeless guests that come to our shelters are disruptive and some have started arguments. One hit an employee this winter. But that was the first assault in 15 years. Our day centre manager, who was once homeless himself, treads a careful line between compassion and the use of a firm word to diffuse a tense situation. And he understands that after a good meal, people are less likely to be disagreeable.

 

I am humbled that anyone allows us to use their story or their image to promote the work of the charity. Those that do share their story often do so because they want to give something back.

 

The other day I spoke to a woman who had left Romania and her children behind to try to eke out a living in London. When she found a job and saved enough money, she brought her kids over to the UK. She literally slept on the street so that her children could have a better future.

 

She now works at a care home as a domestic assistant. “I like to help people. When I came here, many people help me. And when they need my help, I like to help”. But she worries what the future holds. She worries the public will further turn against Romanian immigrants with the negative attention they receive in the press: “Romanians maybe do some bad things. But it’s not all Romanians”. Although not an ethnic Roma herself, she has nothing bad to say about this group: “Every culture has its good and bad. For me, people are the same. I give respect, I want the same back”.

 

We all need a hand up at some point in our lives. And we all just want what’s best for our kids. And we all want a little respect.