“I’m not like what you think I am… I’m not going to spend the money on drugs” were the words of a homeless man as he approached myself and my friend in Leeds city centre one freezing cold evening in December. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t desperate”.
His words “I’m not what you think I am” really struck me. He shouldn’t have to justify why he’s asking for money; the simple fact that he’s living on the streets should be enough to indicate his desperation. But he did it because he’s so used to being walked past, ignored and rejected. This constant rejection leads to a feeling of exclusion – as if being denied a home and benefits isn’t isolating enough. In a recent Guardian video, one man who used to be homeless said people would say to him “It must be so nice being back in society”. He never left society. The people who make these patronising statements prefer to perceive the crisis as separate from society, rather than address it as a horrible, cruel subsection of our society.
The number of homeless people has almost doubled since 2010, with an estimated 320,000 homeless people in Britain, and at least 440 people died on the streets in 2018. To get a job, get access to benefits or get a place to live, you need an address. This level of hypocrisy is incredibly damaging. It makes it almost impossible for homeless people to escape homelessness.
I left Leeds that day feeling saddened by the fact this man had to desperately denounce any potential assumptions we might make based on misconceptions and generalisations about homeless people.
Neuroscientist, Dr Lasana Harris, has investigated ‘The Bystander Effect’ in relation to homelessness and how people make generalised assumptions because of lack of empathy. In contrast, he found that in Japan, where it’s more common for someone to know at least one person who has been homeless at some point in their life, there is more sympathy, rather than disgust.
Harris’ research suggests that ‘you can change your brain’s response simply by thinking about their mind’ – something people are often reluctant to do because it makes them uncomfortable to address the problem. He suggests listening to individual stories and talking to a homeless person rather than walking straight past. When we connect the problem with the wider political landscape we realise homelessness is just one problem in a complex chain of other issues such as unemployment, domestic violence and family abuse.
Obviously, the government need to be doing more to tackle the growing crisis. However, what is also needed is a change in the perception of homeless people. The term ‘fake homeless’ is frequently thrown around by right-wing press, which legitimises the demonisation of homeless people. BBC Three’s recent documentary, ‘Fake Homeless’: Who’s Begging on the Streets?, found that lots of people were reluctant to give money to anyone begging on the streets out of fear that they weren’t really homeless. This is just an excuse to ignore the problem, legitimised by media discourse; anyone begging on the streets is clearly vulnerable and in need of help.
There needs to be a huge effort made by the media and politicians to change the language surrounding homelessness to debunk these damaging stereotypes. Then, hopefully, the man I spoke to in Leeds, like many others, wouldn’t feel backed into a corner of having to explain himself until someone listens and shows kindness.