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Little things lead to change

February 01 2024
Emdad on outreach with some copies of issue 146 of the Pavement  © Emdad Rahman Emdad on outreach with some copies of issue 146 of the Pavement © Emdad Rahman

How the little things we do to support people experiencing homelessness can lead to big changes for the better. Words on outreach, attitudes and fighting divisive rhetoric, by Emdad Rahman

The little things in our lives do matter a great deal, be it a flask of hot tea, a slice of cake, or the gift of a hat or scarf.
Homeless outreach teams the length and breadth of the UK will never eradicate homelessness without greater support and a clear strategy from our leaders, but they do what they can to shed light on an issue which is becoming increasingly visible and urgent in the public’s mind.

For this reason, charities and volunteers will go out to share small items of value: flashlights, supplements, toiletries and protective covers with a view to alleviating the suffering of people faced with a life on the streets.

A tent has magical powers – it protects its inhabitant from the elements and abusive actions of fellow humans. It offers privacy, dignity and a relatively safe space.

The words of irresponsible leaders have far-ranging consequences and homeless people have faced distress with their circumstances despicably described as “lifestyle choices.”

Rough sleeping is the most visible and dangerous form of homelessness and any person with any sense of reality will be fully aware that living on the streets is anything but a chosen path.

People sleeping rough face great danger, theft, assaults, rape and for personal safety reasons many will stay awake during the night, travelling on night buses, walking public streets and public toilets. The reason for this is that visibility usually means safety.

One individual who I was able to talk to about these developments is an old acquaintance of mine. Lea (not her real name) and I used to link up weekly on an allotment as part of a mental health wellbeing activity.

Her health has declined over the years due to the trauma she has experienced.

Lea’s meticulous nature manifests itself even in the way she lives on the streets. After having her tent destroyed by a group of rowdy drunks on a night out, she trawled the local estates and got herself an outdoor bed together with sheeting. When I saw her last during a Bookbike run I saw her dousing the flames after her bed was set on fire.

The cost-of-living crisis, along with a significant shortage of affordable housing and insufficient funding for homelessness services, means the number of people sleeping rough has increased sharply.

One friend I regularly meet on my travels sleeps in the garages of a well-known restaurant and he says he is lucky to have remained undetected so far. This is the reality of life on the street.

For many years his declining mental health has led to a life sleeping rough on the streets. I was astonished to be told he was unable, for various reasons, to access healthcare. Happily, I was able to instantly introduce him to the Homeless Health Inequality Clinic, operating in Barking, and ShowerBox London (free showers available every Saturday outside St Giles-in-the-Fields, central London, 10am–4pm).

A winter outreach programme has enabled me to share copies of the Pavement with many facing life on the streets and each copy has been a valuable resource to the recipient, with many able to access vital support as a result of the compendium of useful information contained within each copy.

Absolutely no one should be deprived of warmth, safety and security and the lesson learnt is that the little things matter a great deal. Our words and conduct when it comes to interaction with vulnerable people can have far-reaching and detrimental consequences.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has launched the first ever London Rough Sleeping Charter which is bringing communities, charities and businesses together to promote a shared belief that any person spending a night alone in a supermarket, a park, a car or a stairwell is not there by chance – there are circumstances like benefit cuts, abuse, a mental health breakdown or the cost-of-living crisis which has greatly contributed to the situation.

The person on the street we feel sorry for has aspirations and hopes and deserves dignity and a helping hand. Refusing to be influenced by divisive rhetoric is one of the most powerful tools we have to beat homelessness.