Living in a big city like Manchester really opened my eyes up to the creeping crisis of homelessness. I'd never seen as many homeless people in my life, they literally dotted the stretch from Piccadilly Gardens right up to the main train station. I'd never been asked for as much spare change, I'd never looked at so many sleeping bags late at night, cold, tired faces bundled up, trying to keep out the cold. I was becoming acutely more aware of this very real, very great issue.
A few weeks ago I visited Brighton for the first time. It wasn't my intention to spend the evening buying hot drinks for folks living on the streets, but it was something I did and it's something I broach carefully with others when telling them about my trip; simply because I want to spread awareness and a little insight but I don't want people to feel I am standing on ceremony for doing something very small for a few people. Myself and my mum happened upon a chap with a Staffy, bundled up underneath a sleeping bag. He simply asked if I had a light for a cigarette, which I gave him. I couldn't simply stand above him, so I bobbed down and handed him the lighter. This simple act inspired me to offer him a hot drink; he looked freezing. Whilst my mum popped in the shop to buy him a drink, I started chatting to him, we talked about how the primary industries such as mining and steel works had dried up gone; he was from Newcastle.
Further down the street was another man, this time from Plymouth. He told my mum about how he was ex-Army, how he had a child, how he binge drank occassionally, how he had mental health problems. He had come to this place to be by the sea, to be away from his family in quite a self-less act. He also told her that every person who is on the streets had put themselves there and that the ones who ask for money are normally using it for drink or drugs. How much of this was true, I don't know. None of us agrees with giving money to someone to fund an ultimately destructive habit and the homeless charities of the UK advise to buy food or drink for people rather than give money. However, if this is your only solace and only relief, what would any of us do if someone gave us money when faced with relentless nights on the street? It's difficult to know.
I couldn't help but want to help buy these people a hot drink. It was a luxury I took for granted every day, so I bought him a hot drink whilst he chatted to my mum. He said he would change his life - I truly hope he does.
Ultimately my opinion on homelessness had changed. The man from Plymouth had told my mum that if you're homeless, you've probably put yourself there. It was an opinion I didn't fully agree with. It could happen to any of us, life can come crashing down around us.
I've been approached by the same people in town who ask for money to get home (multiple times, they never remember me) - do I give them money? Generally not, they ask multiple people for that £0.70 bus fare, are they homeless? I don't know. They're generally not sat down and looking cold and dejected. For some people I would give money, but it's not overly often. I am happy to lend a light, give them a cigarette or buy them a hot drink or sandwich - a million times over. I agree that giving money is not the way to solve a problem like addiction - but how do we solve this crisis? It's illegal to beg, they generally get moved on - what if they don't have a family to help them? How do the ones who are truly stuck in this cycle get out?
What I do know is I've had difficult times in my life when it would have been easier to give up, but I've also had amazing friends and family to pick me back up. I could have been in that position. Any of us could. We have all had traumas, losses, struggles and heartbreaks. I have just been fortunate enough to have support.
I guess what my rambling is trying to say is simple - be a good person and think about these people; I hope slowly we can improve homelessness and the lives of those stuck in this place, once and for all.