We want the homeless to stay homeless

WE WANT THE HOMELESS TO STAY HOMELESS.

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Scrolling through Facebook one day, I came across an ITV newsclip: “HOMELESS MAN SAVES DROWNING WOMAN”. I watched it. It told the story of a man who, from his usual shelter (an alcove near the Golden Jubilee Bridges in London) saw a woman fall from the bridge into the Thames. He promptly jumped into the river, saving her and almost drowning himself in the process.

He had received an award for bravery, and employment prospects had arisen as a result. But hidden in the article’s subtext, the real conclusion was that this man was still without a home. The alcove where he often slept was shown in present tense. He remained the Homeless Man of the headline.

Running a Google search under the related term “homeless man” provides similar stories. It’s like Googling for news articles involving people prefixed by location or nationality, such as  “Californian woman” or “Australian man”. The collective events given build up a kind of tragicomic character; Australian Man, who won the lottery twice in one week! He claims to have found the missing MH370!  He lost limbs after falling from a train! He sued Google (for defamation of character!)...

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So what sort of hi-jinx does Homeless Man get up to? Homeless Man saves life, Homeless Man goes on drunken rampage, Homeless Man found in recycling was crushed to death, Homeless Man gives away last £20. The character of Homeless Man is not comic, but wholly tragic if not bittersweet - the tragedy lying in his societal status (a more abject, endangered supporting character manifests in the results of “Homeless Woman” - more on this later).

The pull of the “HOMELESS MAN SAVES DROWNING WOMAN” article was within the hero’s Homeless status. If the newsclip had been headlined, “MAN SAVES DROWNING WOMAN”, would it have had the same pull? Maybe. It’s still an act of heroism. If the man involved was not homeless, then this could be a standard day at work for a lifeguard. In which case the story might be, “WOMAN SAVED FROM DROWNING”, which shifts the focus.

So how about if the man was indeed homeless, and this was only mentioned within the article itself (for those who bothered to watch it all the way through)? You can imagine the Comments Section filled with marvel at the courage of the man, his pure selflessness, and the real tug: that this man was Homeless. There could even be outrage that this important fact was not stated! Surely, more than any other factor, this demonstrates the pureness of his character!

What’s more, would it have made a difference if the newsclip concluded with a happy ending for the man himself, that his act of heroism had been rewarded with a home?

The “Homeless Man” character has become a tool for popular Western narrative. Homeless Man, back to save the day with his enormous heart. Somebody who fell downwards through the rungs of bureaucracy, mental health, the family unit, finance… and left to survive where he landed. Sidelined. Begging on the streets. Ignored. Untouchable. Unfathomable. Existing beneath us in an unimaginable sub-society.  And yet, after systematic degradation, he is capable of humanity. He will jump into a river to save a drowning woman, or give his last £20 to a girl stranded late at night (when the other person involved is a woman, it seems to exacerbate his goodwill - extending it into an example of the ultimate chivalry). What a good example Homeless Man sets for us. And yet, the state of Homeless, once reached, is difficult to escape.

Cynically, Homeless Man also comes in handy for more personal narratives. It’s true that social media presents a curated self, and it’s not uncommon for people to utilise this by posting updates describing interactions with Homeless Man - how they gave him money, or bought him a McDonalds, or start a fundraiser to help him “get back on his feet”.

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Of course, these acts aren’t entirely without some form of good - but it’s not necessarily inherent within the motive. Inescapably, when published online these acts become a positive proposition relating to the poster themselves. Some will even take a photograph of Homeless Man to accompany the post, holding the Big Mac gifted to them, both giving a thumbs-up. Like a hunting trophy, proof.

The photo might be accompanied by something like, “This is David. He’s been living on the streets for 23 years. Still smiling. One of the nicest blokes I’ve ever met.”

The nice bloke-ness of David is not the real focus here - instead it relates to the poster themselves, portraying their ability to recognise the niceness and endurance of a person living on the streets, to have apparently spent enough time and shown enough interest to learn their name and introductory life history, to have even spent money for them. How good they must be. David may as well remain anonymous.  

So what of Homeless Woman? Her story is a gritty, hard-to-watch drama - which nobody actually watches. Uncomfortable viewing. Homeless Woman reveals horrors of life on streets as vulnerable rough sleepers raped, “‘I cried all night”; Homeless Women on their first night on the streets”, police kicked Homeless Woman out of warm corridor and into the cold. While the emotional tug is embellished in comparison to her male counterpart, Homeless Woman is personalised by her vulnerability as a woman.

In 2017, of the estimated 4751 homeless individuals in England, 3965 were male. Clearly, Homeless Man’s gender, which if he weren’t homeless would generally be of societal advantage, works against him here. What does this say about the opportunities available to each gender? This perpetuates a dangerous depersonalisation across the board, even doubly harmful to rough sleepers: he’s a man, he can fend for himself, right?  

Before I forget, there’s another character to provide us comic relief: Crazy Homeless Person, who can be played by both genders (but is more likely to be ethnic minority, particularly black). Issues related to mental health and all of its aspects - from the care system to individual circumstances and support - are a key cause of destitution. What better tribute than the Crazy Homeless Person, who shouts obscenities at pigeons and offers sexual favours?

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My hometown of Southend-on-Sea was one of the top 4 local authorities with the highest increase in rough sleepers.[1] During the unseasonably snowy snap earlier this year, there was a woman asking for money outside the local supermarket. I gave her the coins from my purse, and she thanked me unendingly, tears welling up in her eyes. She told me she was cold and hungry. She had pneumonia but was kicked out of Southend Hospital because they needed beds and there was nothing else they could do for her. Her hair was falling out. We talked about the increase of people living on the streets in Southend. She said that they were being sent down from London boroughs, being told that Southend had more resources and that they could be accommodated there. Now the local churches which offered overnight beds are filling up every night, with no room for more. And some opportunists - drug addicts, career criminals - are taking advantage; claiming homelessness in exchange for money.  

The resulting increase in crime is palpable here - last week I saw a man’s money get stolen from him as he withdrew it from a cash point. It was 11am in broad daylight and in a busy area of the high street. He shouted and chased the thief, but gave up shortly - the thief being younger and faster. Everyone stopped and stared. And so did I. None of us did anything.

But how good I am for giving money! How good we are for noticing!

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These common characterisations serve to objectify those who live on the streets, in the utmost poverty. This means the homeless will stay Homeless, as their systematic depersonalisation serves the societal position of those more fortunate. The current economic climate is to blame, for sure - but this is enabled by the prevailing neoliberal attitude. From the promotion of economic rewards for the “hard working family unit”, by Thatcher through to Osbourne (even Blair along the way), to increasingly vocal Conservatism in working class communities… the general consensus is: get your head down and worry only about yourself.  

Although who can afford to worry about anybody else, anyway? People are working several jobs to make ends meet. They have debts to pay off. They’ve been shafted by Universal Credit. They have got children to feed and clothe. They’re exhausted. It’s not their problem after all. The very capacity to feel responsible for one another has quietly disappeared out the door, allowing continual cuts to health and social care. Those that lose the race soon follow.

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Social media serves this neoliberal narrative too - in a gig economy, all components must be for the full convenience of the consumer. There is a person begging for change on the street: how can this serve me? If I’m going to give them money, or anything in fact, then I’ve got to get something out of it. A release of chemicals to the brain that make me feel good about myself? Great. How can I get the most value for money? By documenting the scenario, posting it online to receive notifications and comments, making public my obvious good nature and providing me with feelings of validation and further nice brain chemicals! Deal.

In this way too, it is far easier to deny any feelings of civil responsibility, and to ignore the deep-rooted socioeconomic issues at hand. Homeless Man exists to show us how it could be if we don’t keep up with bills, repayments and expectations. Forever selfless and full of positive attitude - but still Homeless. So thank you, Homeless Man; for showing us how fortunate we really are, for showing us how good we can be, and for showing us that it’s everybody for themselves. You have saved the day once again.