One of the first things I did in my last role (as HR and Business Strategy Manager at a social housing company) was to attend a conference on homelessness. Living and working in a fairly rural area meant that this was an issue I was aware of, but wasn’t faced with on a daily basis (in fact far less often than that). Despite this lack of real-life experience, I’ve always believed it was a worthy cause. I was inspired to write a blog following the event on what I believed HR could do to help the homeless. The plush hotel where the homelessness conference was held is right opposite the train station. Now on my commute to my new role in the city I walk past it twice a day. The remainder of my walk is punctuated by the homeless begging at their regular posts. Despite wanting to help I often feel paralysed by the scale of the problem. I try to give a smile and a nod, otherwise I put my head down like everyone else and try to make my train on time.
I’ve witnessed real kindness towards their plight. A man convincing his girlfriend to go back and give a five pound note to a man begging in the subway. An elderly lady reaching inside her bag for a donation, after which the homeless guy told her it was his birthday. A few weeks ago it was me reaching in my pocket for a bit of change to throw into a proffered cup. I don’t know why that day was different but I was happy and had a few coins to hand. However my good deed quickly turned sour when, as I bent down to hand over roughly 40 pence, a passer by warned me not to part with my hard-earned cash. “They have more money than us!” she laughed, adding as if to somehow emphasise her point, “I work at the job centre”. As I looked down at the poor guy huddled in his grey sleeping bag he quietly said “thanks for stopping”. Feeling shocked, I carried on my way.
There have been numerous stories in the press recently about “fake” homeless people begging because it pays better than work, or even to supplement their existing income. One journalist tried this for himself, showing that those who appeared to have little themselves seemed more willing to help the apparently homeless (all proceeds were donated to a homeless charity). However, I do not believe this is widespread, and I do not wish to start to question whether the benefactor of my 40 pence doesn’t take shelter when it’s raining because a sorry looking wet tramp earns more than a dry one.
What I would really like to question is why a government employee has such disdain for her apparent client group, and more importantly why has she not done what she is supposed to and enabled this man to earn a living? Surely anyone with a decent job in need of some extra cash would rather monitor their Just Giving page from home with a cup of tea than sit on a frozen pavement. I do not deny that she has a tough job, given an ever diminishing view of what talent looks like and any kind of gap in a CV being its passport to the recycling bin. That’s not even taking account of the taint that any kind of criminal conviction (even minor and well spent) will leave, despite any kind of equality legislation in place. A UK labour market which has little demand for low skilled jobs doesn’t help either. Yet her attitude was completely unacceptable.
What was emphasised by the homelessness conference was that what is needed is clearly a home, along with a job to support it. The difficulty is finding a role from an inferior position which is secure and will pay enough to cover the bills, bearing in mind that the homeless often have nobody to fall back on, being the reason for their predicament in the first place. The majority of people on the streets deserve sympathy and help, whatever their situation. If you don’t want to “spare some change” then fine, but don’t persecute those who do.
(Photo is from the art project by Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope, signs for the homeless)