It was a bright, beautiful day in Cardiff last May. I was walking back from town, about to go through the underpass by City Hall when I spotted a man, face-down, lying in the bushes at the side of the wall. I didn’t stop straight away, just slowed, quickly concluding from his ragged coat and long un-brushed hair he was homeless. Soon, a few others began to gather with me, we stood staring at the lifeless body. There was a sense of unease, fear even. Eventually one of the guys in the group approached the man, “mate?” he called, climbing onto the wall and crouching next to him. “Mate, you okay?” There was a groan. “Ah, he’s breathing,” – a symphony of sighs- “stinks of booze. Just passed out drunk.” The group (me included) dispersed in relief, satisfied with this evidence.
But I’ve thought about the incident a lot since; thought about how it might have gone if it was a man in a business suit, or a student with a bag full of books face-down and not moving. Would our help still have only extended as far as checking the passed out person was still alive and off we’d all pop to go about our day? Sadly, I think I know the truth. No. Much more would have been done. A phone would be searched for, emergency services contacted, compassion and concern given. Because to us, a non-homeless person is still fully human, an individual with family and friends who care about them. It’s a brutal thing to admit to yourself – isn’t it? – that on some level you don’t think of homeless people, as people. But I’m afraid it’s probably true. How else could we live with it? Leaving a fellow human, cold, hungry, vulnerable and alone on the streets. Why else are these damaging narratives constructed around homeless people- saying they are scum, lazy and have only themselves to blame? They come from guilt. It’s to make people feel better about walking past them each and every day.
On the 31st of January people across the UK tuned into watch the first episode of the BBC documentary series ‘Cardiff: living on the streets’. The programme opens with the shocking statistic that the number of people sleeping rough in Cardiff has more than doubled in the last year. As with everyone I’ve spoken to who watched the documentary, I was deeply moved to see the personal stories of those without homes around Cardiff. I even found myself recognising the faces of many of those who appeared. The show did a great job of giving an insight into the identity and lives of those it featured, with this episode namely following “Smurf” (real name Stewart), Raymond and Dean.
For me, one of the most horrifying moments took place when Smurf – trying to reach out to people who were out on the town for the weekend- was met with serious verbal (and near physical) abuse from a group of men. He was told ‘to get a life’ to ‘stop begging, you don’t need to beg’. The level of rage that seemed to accumulate in such a short space of time surprised me, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. These men became particularly angry because of the material items Smurf had which they perceived to be too nice for someone without a home. This is actually an idea that pervades our society- the concept that poor people shouldn’t have things -they should lack certain items in order to suitably qualify as “needy”. Deep down I think maybe the anger these men felt came from a want to blame someone, to rid themselves of the sense that they should be doing something. It was easier for them to turn this responsibility back on Smurf and make themselves feel better. It’s not something unfamiliar to us, to blame those more vulnerable than ourselves for their own misfortune. We see it with homeless people, we see it with the refugee crisis, by generating fear and anger towards those who are in need we can justify not giving help.
Homelessness can occur for numerous reasons, but generally it is rooted in the breakdown of relationships with friends and family which can leave people who are in desperate situations without any support network. Hence many young people on the streets are actually LGBT folk and have found themselves without help after receiving hostility from their families. Speaking to fellow students I found that many of us don’t always know how best to help those sleeping rough. I don’t think anyone likes to think of how many times they’ve said ‘no thank you’ to the Big Issue, how many times they’ve mumbled a ‘sorry’ at a request for change. Of course, no one person can single handedly change things. If I said yes to every Big Issue, gave change to every person sleeping rough, I’d be broke by the end of the day. But a change in attitude, people trying to do more and telling people about what you’re doing, well that can make a difference. An article published on Wales Online quotes Danny, who is one of Cardiff’s many homeless people, saying – ‘Homeless people don’t just want your money […] we just want five minutes of your time, someone to speak to us’. This is confirmed by Ceri – a representative of the Wallich, a Welsh homeless charity. She told me that a conversation and a cup of tea ‘can not only brighten up a day but help prevent existing mental health conditions from worsening’. This isn’t to say giving food or money isn’t helpful, of course it is and I’d even actively encourage it. But it’s worth considering the delivery too. Being friendly when you give these things, or even just approaching someone who looks a bit sad or lonely to see if they’d like a few minutes of your company.
Both statistics from the Wallich and the Welsh government confirm an 83% increase in those sleeping rough in Cardiff. While we can’t solve a housing crisis in the blink of an eye, we can change how we treat those effected. The Wallich run a volunteer programme for those eager to help and details can be found on their website. If you’re in the city centre on the 17th or 18th of Feb why not stop by Two of a Kind, a pop up shop in the Duke Street Arcade- all profits will be going to Wallich. I’d recommend everyone download the Street link app which can be used to notify people with the proper resources of anyone who is sleeping in rough and in need. Don’t forget to check out other Welsh homeless charities such as Huggard and Shelter Cymru. It is even worth thinking about what companies you support, coffee shops such as Pret run some wonderful programmes which can benefit homeless people. Above all though, the most important thing we can do is to give our compassion to homeless people – whether that’s in giving away some old books, having a conversation, or even just a smiling and saying hello when you’re in a rush. Sometimes human-contact lifts mood more than any macchiato ever could.