“You’re not feeding them are you?”
Updated: May 18
Stigma exists. Now is the time to see our shared humanity.
There have been a lot of positives over the last few weeks. Many people have moved into accommodation, some the for the first time in decades. Local authorities, homelessness organisations and people experiencing homelessness have worked together to support over 5000 people off the streets. And, importantly, many people have given their time, their skills and their compassion to make this happen. These are the unsung heroes who have shown us all what can be achieved.
But there have also been negatives. People have been harassed, with spaces violated and possessions stolen. Some have been stigmatised, their humanity disregarded and their experiences dismissed and subsumed to a stereotype.
“They were sleeping outside the [SHOP] in [SHOPPING CENTRE]. They’re gear was chucked away… They’re getting hassled, the entrenched sleepers.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“[They said] ‘You’re not feeding them are you? [...] You’re not giving them free food as well are you? I had to work all my life and they’re giving them free food, free accommodation.’ […] The windows in the B n B’s were open, so the clients would have heard this. So that rather upset me.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“[They said] 'All they’re interested in is their next fix. You can’t ask them what they want. They don’t know, they just want they’re next fix. That is the reality I’m afraid.' … To have a [...] worker like that shows why [people] don’t engage.” Member of National Advisory Panel
These attitudes and behaviours are not new. A Crisis report in 2016 estimated that people rough sleeping face intimidation and abuse and are 15 times more likely to be assaulted. More than one in three had been deliberately hit, kicked, or experienced some other form of violence while homeless.
Even amongst the kindness of so many people, these attitudes and behaviours still persist. Why is this?
“My experience of homelessness was trauma based, leading to self-infliction. The public looks at all homelessness as a self-infliction." Member of National Advisory Panel
You will have many opinions on why people hold stigmatising views of people experiencing homelessness. One view that we would share relates to peoples fears.
People want to be safe. In the current climate, this want seems more and more stark, this emotion more and more heightened. Regretfully, a lack of understanding around the many causes that can lead to people experiencing homelessness makes some people fall on stereotypes, at the same time as focusing on immediate behaviours which can feel threatening to their safety.
“These people that are staying next to these places [hotels where former rough sleepers have been temporarily housed], it must be frightening for them, it must be frightening for a lot of people. That has a knock on effect, the fear, wrapped around people, and being forced to have, what they might see, as a self inflicting person, whose brought this on themselves, but not seeing the real underlying issues that I see with homelessness, street begging and using. People have all these underlying issues that are hidden and can’t be seen, and all that is seen is the self-inflicting, so the people that all they see is that, there’s going to be a wave of fear.” Member of National Advisory Panel
Tot tackle this fear, we must, as a society, increase our understanding. We must all be honest.
Here are some truths. Many people experiencing multiple disadvantage have experienced traumatic experiences in childhood. Many people who leave care become homeless. Areas of high deprivation can witness the extreme tragedy of people losing their lives at a higher level than other areas. Structures, systems and poverty all have a huge part on peoples lives.
85% of people experiencing multiple disadvantage have experienced traumatic experiences in childhood. Hard Edges: Mapping Severe and Multiple Disadvantages
One third of care leavers become homeless in the first two years immediately after they leave care and 25% of homeless people have been in care at some point in their lives. Crisis
Local areas in England with the highest deprivation had around nine times more deaths of homeless people relative to their population than the least disadvantaged areas. Office for National Statistics
We are at a pivotal moment where we have a real opportunity to end rough sleeping. To truly embrace this opportunity those who can should use their skills to support the public increase their understanding around the causes of homelessness.
This does not mean trying to illicit sympathy. Nobody want sympathy, which can be condescending and other-ing.
It does mean building compassion, removing labels that people are given which risk driving the the stigma that people face.
And it does means we all acknowledge people for the strengths and the talents that they have.
Over the last few weeks there have been many places where this has been happening, where people have been brought together with a common purpose and our shared humanity has been apparent to all.
If we work now to share understanding and foster positive perceptions, then this way of thinking can be the real legacy of the last few weeks.