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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