December and January 2012/3
The last two months have been quite a change to my otherwise quiet winter life in Normandy (see the Normandy Winters page of this blog). I couldn’t afford to do a travel trip to India as I have done in previous years so, thinking laterally, I volunteered with a homeless charity and found myself living in a nine bedroom house in a desirable area of Cambridge near the Cam. The idea is that the two volunteers run the house in a practical sort of way, ordering food and stocking the kitchen, making sure the nine people (two volunteers and seven single people with homelessness issues) keep the house clean and tidy and share it in an equitable way without falling out.
I now have a much better grasp on the diverse factors that can cause homelessness and how the majority of homeless people are not homeless through their own fault.
I have learned that the major cause of prolonged homelessness is the pernicious effect of alcohol and drug addiction, often coupled with relationship breakdown and the withdrawal of disability benefits. As a person who enjoys an occasional pint of real ale or a glass of red wine, I now know how dangerous alcohol can be and how destructive. The worthy will bleat on about how minimum pricing will stop binge drinking and hence will stop anti-social behaviour. Ha! Ha! Alcohol is a money earner for the government and those who are unfortunate enough to get addicted are merely collateral damage. Without beating around the bush, alcohol can and does kill and it causes much heartache on the way.
The tabloid view promoted by the political right is that ALL homelessness is a direct result of laziness and people who are homeless are just reaping what they have sown (or failed to sow). I have learned from first hand experience that only in a minority of cases, is laziness the cause of a person’s decent into homelessness. It is much more complicated than the rhetoric of the right.
Loosing a relationship or a job or a business, is often the thin end of the wedge. Once homeless and sleeping out, people tend to drink to forget or make the current terror more bearable. The cycle then gets worse, they become addicted and the real damage begins. Add into the mix, previous mental health issues, and the spiral of decline spins ever more towards destruction and death.
Once there were night-shelters, where people who had fallen very low, could find shelter, a bed and some help. There are still a few – hanging on by their fingernails. All too often these have been closed for lack of council or charitable funding. Some have been up-graded into “assessment centres” with limited overnight beds, albeit en-suite! The night-shelter in Cambridge took this route with the aid of a £1.3 million lottery grant. They have a dedicated staff and do a great job, but they only have 20 beds.
However there are still homeless people in Cambridge without a bed for the night. The council sponsored count of the homeless discounts anyone who is sitting up or has gone for a pee! To get counted as homeless, a person has to be laying down and asleep – it beggars belief. The count seems to be more an anti-crime device than a heartfelt tool to get people into shelter, after all the big shelter has been closed.
As soon as a person is off the street and has a room with a bed to sleep on, he or she qualifies for housing benefit; that is how housing charities are funded. At the same time the right wing government is busy eroding the rights to and the amount of, housing benefit, to the applause of the tabloid thinkers. This will affect homeless charities. Small homeless charities running hostels, are becoming pray to large ones. Wolves in sheeps’ clothing, as the saying goes, who are often in the guise of national housing associations with large corporate structures and chief executives earning mega-money salaries plus a “car plan”.
Two 20 plus bedded hostels in Cambridge have already been swallowed up. If the current government with its right-wing dogma and tabloid pleasing policies, allow existing large “Not for Profit” housing associations to become “For Profit Companies” with directors and share-holders wanting dividends, the sharks will really feast on ex-homeless, Sam or Suzie’s housing benefits to fund dividends, corporate salaries and cars. The situation is going to get worse.
“Corporate Watch” have an interesting article on their website entitled “Who Profits from Destitution” that goes into much more detail than I do in this piece.
There was a success during the two months I was in the big shared house. An Italian chap with a sunny personality got a job! – as a cleaner on minimum wage for 24 hours a week, and so gained a space in a “move on house” where there were only four sharers. He was determined to get the job and got dressed up in a suit courtesy of a £100 grant from the Job Centre. When I last spoke to him he was in a typically happy mood. Both house and job were “going well”. But he was worse off financially when everything is factored in.
Unfortunately he was replaced by a resident with a chip on a shoulder and an uncontrollable temper. I was subjected to a two hour session of verbal abuse that sent my blood pressure sky high. I no longer felt safe, so for my own health, I cut my volunteering short and drove to Devon for a break before returning to Normandy and my little eco-cottage.
Part two of One Cambridge Winter has pictures and a description of living in this interesting city from an essentially rural photographer.