Why we should be helping the homeless

pictured: cold temperatures effect the homeless mentally and physically (source: ben_osteen via flickr)

by Kezia Fentiman

Awareness is paramount to today’s social issues and if we continue to give nothing but unspoken sympathy and coppers to the homeless, long term solutions will remain part of the distant future.

The number of homeless people across the UK has reached a record high, with around 3,600 people sleeping on the streets every night in England alone. This doesn’t even account for the undeclared “hidden homeless” or those who sleep in a shelter.

Surveys show that people are more likely to ignore homeless people than give them anything; empathy and compassion have been replaced with ignorance and a lack of desire to become aware. As residents of an urban area where homelessness has risen by 83% over the last two years, we should feel collectively responsible for the failure to provide adequate local aid.

Looking broadly at the homelessness crisis, it shows so many flaws in the nature of society. It is said that structural inequalities and inequity are a functional part of economy and culture, but I don’t believe this is necessarily true. After all, equal distribution of resources would surely demonstrate a more democratic, representative and fair society.

With temperatures dropping as low as 4°C during winter months in the city of Cardiff, frostbite, hypothermia and diminished mental health all threaten those who are sleeping rough. It is interesting to contemplate each of these and realise how easy it could be to take small steps towards changing the lives of our homeless neighbours.

Take mental health for example; not only does a cold core temperature hinder enzyme effectiveness in the brain causing mental lethargy, but the physiological effects are amplified when combined with the psychological effect of the Christmas season.

Being surrounded by a festival of consumption and Christmas cheer may intensify feelings of isolation, hopelessness and deprivation which will ultimately contribute towards symptoms of depression. Why not spend an hour getting to know someone on the streets, or invest in a gift for them this Christmas?

As for physical consequences of freezing temperatures, insufficient sources of warmth can literally lead to people freezing to death. Why not donate some of your old clothes and blankets to the homeless or invite them to purchase foil blankets and a hot drink with you?

I’d like to highlight that while our sympathy for homeless people may be at its peak during the cold weather, their suffering is definitely not seasonal.

General misconceptions and judgement are a daily obstacle for those living on the streets, as their attempts to reach out to people like you and me are shut down by our certainty that any money we give directly to them will be used to fuel substance abuse.

Rather than considering alternatives such as politely declining or offering to buy them some food, passers-by often ignore them or become irritated by them which is frankly belittling and unjust.

It is so important to show respect to those in a disadvantaged position; psychological research has proved that a simple “have a nice day” has a positive ripple effect on those suffering from low mood or depression.

While these are short term suggestions, small changes can add up to having a big impact and will encourage the success of long term solutions such as businesses working with charities to generate income for the homeless.

Independent action can be difficult, but there are so many existing schemes that you can become a part of here in Cardiff. Charities such as The Huggard Centre and The Wallich would welcome your support with open arms, even if it was through a one-off donation of clothes or food. Purchasing The Big Issue is also an easy way of showing your support.

If you take anything away from reading this, it should be that supporting a person in need’s journey to happiness will take nothing away from you; I urge you to be compassionate and do whatever you can – no matter how small – to help a homeless person this winter.

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