I work for a local charity based in Sheffield aimed at helping homeless adults. Whilst working here I have met some of the most genuine, empathetic, caring people. These are incredibly talented people who have had jobs making adverts for Ikea, can play the guitar beautifully, and are fluent in multiple languages. I’ve met people who have overcome horrific childhood abuse, individuals who have fled war torn countries, and people who have just fallen on hard times.
Empathetic, caring and genuine are words I very rarely hear people use to describe the homeless. I regularly hear words like bum, low-life, and users. The classic and most painful sentence I hear is that “they bring it on themselves,” or even worse, that they “CHOOSE this life.” Trust me, I’ve slept outside for a night with just a sleeping bag, no-one would ever choose this.
Not only are the verbal stereotypes damaging, there is often the sad reality that homeless people are victims of physical abuse. One of our service users told me the story of when his friend got kicked to death by a drunk person coming back from a night out. His friend was simply curled up in a sleeping bag, trying to keep warm. I hear of this violence against homeless people time and time again.
One of my co-workers recently saw a group of drunk, homeless people get into a fight. When one of the by-standers from the group asked a police officer for help, he pushed him against a wall and shouted “Why would I help a bunch of drunks like you?!”
To me, the word ‘homeless’ strips the person of an identity. They fit into the homogeneous mass of socially excluded people, living on the fringes of society, involved with drugs, drink and violence. They fit into the group who will shop lift, or beat someone up for money to get their next hit. They are the group of people who will shout and swear at you passing by in the street.
At least that’s what society tells us they are.
Instead, if you looked past society’s stereotypes and assumptions you would see these are the people who will feed their dog before they feed themselves. They are the people who will share their sandwich with their fellow rough sleeper, even though they are hungry. They are the people who will thank you from the bottom of their heart for providing them with a hot breakfast and a cup of tea.
Our society is saturated in stereotypes and it’s incredibly damaging. From gender to race to the dehumanisation of the working class, social categorization has become a way to define others and excuse ourselves from taking responsibility as to how we think, feel and act towards certain people.
I will always remember when I was in London with an ex-boyfriend in the middle of a freezing winter. A homeless man was sat shivering in a doorway, so I stopped and went to go into a shop to buy him a cup of coffee. My boyfriend at the time got quite angry with me, saying if I bought him a coffee he would walk away and leave me there (three guesses why he’s my ex!). It shocked me, as I wasn’t asking him for money or expecting him to buy the coffee and interact with the man. This moment highlighted the sheer contempt people seem to have towards the homeless and how hard it is for people to empathise with them.
Statistically, we are all three pay packages away from being homeless. Let’s start challenging the stigmas and instead of seeing is as ‘their’ problem, know that we can embrace the issue as a societal problem, and one that we all have the power to change.
– Jade Hearsum