Homelessness is a prison

Death on the streets: Shock figures reveal horrifying extent of homeless fatalities in Scotland

As someone who has direct experience of being homeless, I have some sympathy for those charged with addressing the problem ‘at the sharp end’. The mistake far too many people make is to assume that homeless people are actively seeking help which ‘the authorities’ are denying them or failing to provide.

The problem is vastly more complicated than that. Homelessness is commonly associated with varying degrees of detachment from ‘normal’ society and, therefore, disengagement from the agencies which might help. Homelessness is a symptom of a ruptured society. There is a gulf between the homeless and functioning society as great as that which sets apart groups such as refugees and, ironically if counter-intuitively, the very rich.

It’s not that people want to be homeless. Although some undoubtedly do prefer the difficulties and deprivations of homelessness to the complexities and pressures of ‘normal’ society. It is possible to be institutionalised to life on the street just as it is to be institutionalised to life in prison. Both can have attractions for people who are broken.

But even for those who haven’t come to find in their circumstances a satisfactory cocoon protecting them from social pressures they cannot cope with, homelessness can be a prison. A place in which the things we take for granted become the objectives of a daily struggle which is all too often futile. And the more the struggle fails, the more the individual is locked into their condition.

Few who have not experienced it can imagine what it is like to have the very fundamentals of existence – nourishment, warmth and shelter – loom so large in life that there is no possible space for thoughts of escape.

It’s not poverty that kills, but despair. The grinding, soul-destroying, spirit-sapping conviction that there will be no end to end to the struggle. That it is all of life. And it is intolerable.

The answer is not additional funds, or better programmes, or extra staff. None of that will repair the widening, deepening fissures in society. At best, it might build some fragile, temporary bridges. If we want people to fit in society then we have to create a society fit for people. And that’s not a task we can palm off on some government agency.


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About Peter A Bell

Thinker. Listener. Talker. Reader. Writer. None of my attitudes are immutable. None of my conclusions are final. None of my opinions are humble.
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One Response to Homelessness is a prison

  1. Jane McQ says:

    I agree with what you say about needing a society that is worth participating in, but, I disagree with the idea that extra funding won’t help. I work and live in Highland, The current waiting time for childless people in Inverness to get a permanent allocation under homeless law is two years. Life on hold for two years. Often B&B for most of that, hard to work, hard to study. No routine and people are really at risk of being sucked into that ‘lifestyle’.#
    I work with people leaving jail and yes, a few, are really institutionalised; but the majority want to make the best of the situation, but find it hard living in unsupported temporary accommodation, often surrounded by the same people they were in jail with, pestered to do things they don’t want to. I’ve seen where they are placed, and quite frankly, I reckon I would end up on some type of self-medication PDQ.
    I have met people who prefer jail to outside, – and it’s a low bar that giving up your fundamental freedom is the only way to make sure you’re housed and fed. But in 15 years of this type of work, I count those in single figures.
    We need to support the most vulnerable, yes. But we also need to recognise that if they were adequately housed many would not be in that category.

    Liked by 1 person

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