A decade on the streets

Imagine, as you looked back over the past decade, you were looking back on a life on the streets.

This is the reality for many people in the UK. Soup kitchens, food banks, shelters and hostels have become so much a part of society’s infrastructure that we take them for granted. Lots of people volunteer to support those that are homeless over Xmas; ensuring everyone gets a good meal and isn’t alone on Xmas day. There are, in Southend, a lot of great organisations and individuals doing a brilliant job of supporting people who are homeless and/or in crisis.

But what will we do when the season of goodwill ends and many volunteers go back to work, or other commitments? What happens next month? Next year? And the year after that?

A couple of weeks’ back, I met “John”. For the past 10 years, he’s been homeless. No security of income or shelter – for TEN years. John’s adapted well to life on the streets, even styling himself as a Gentleman Tramp. He says he enjoys the lifestyle. However, living on the streets is to live in purgatory. You can’t plan for the future. Can’t realise your ambitions. You’re at the mercy of charity. Your life isn’t your own.

It’s easy to lose your sense of identity and worth. You’re bullied, humiliated, assaulted, spat at, blamed for your own circumstances. You feel a failure. Little wonder many homeless people turn to alcohol or drugs and suffer with poor mental health.

Homeless people DO have hope and dreams, and ideas about how to realise them. They have ideas about how to improve their own situation and that of others. John told me about a scheme he’s been researching where homeless people have lockers for their valuables. As John explained: “You think being on the streets is rock bottom. It’s not. Rock bottom is when you lose the things that remind you who you are – your photos, poems, papers, books”.

If we want to change things, we must listen to the voices of lived experience. We must consider how to give people back their power; give people mastery of their own destiny.

My friend James Vessey-Miller has started a story-telling project to ask homeless people in Southend-on-Sea about themselves and their aspirations, and to ask what they would do to improve their situation. James plans to use stories to illustrate the individuality of homeless people and their creativity in coming up with solutions.

Tying in with my wider project about changing the paradigm around poverty and economic injustice (which involves many of the aforementioned organisations/individuals) we hope James’s project will start conversations with service providers and others about how we help everyone in Southend to thrive. When we enable everyone to contribute to society and the economy, everyone benefits.

So, when you reflect on not only the past year, but the past decade – the highs and lows, the laughter, the magical moments, the tears, the grief, the loved ones lost and new friends found – think about how different that life might have been had you woken every morning on the street, wondering where your next meal would come from.

And, as you make plans for the coming year, consider what your contribution could be to helping someone realise their dreams.

(Also published on LinkedIn)

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