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Dehumanising the Homeless

When walking to work, I saw a homeless man face down, motionless, on the pavement.

I asked if he was okay and received no response. He appeared to be unconscious. I asked people walking by to help, but only two people stopped; the first to say ‘he’s not dead, he’s breathing’ and walk on.

The other: ‘he’s just homeless’.

 

Despite Brighton’s reputation as a ‘free-loving’, ‘anything-goes’ community, our city holds the second highest number of homeless people in the country. As residents of Brighton, we cannot continue to ignore this critical issue, an issue that is only becoming worse, with the number of homeless people in Brighton rising tenfold since 2010.

But what can we do? The answer is simple: we need to treat them like people. Stop de-humanising them; stop viewing them as parasites draining our resources and cluttering our streets; stop passing sympathetic glances when we walk down the street – only to forget two minutes later as we’re on our way to meet our friends for brunch.

Too often I’ve heard people say that homelessness is ‘their fault’: “He’s just homeless”

In the 18th century, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticised rationality and reason for suppressing natural instincts – preventing people from helping others and causing division in society.

Society has developed a great deal since then, but a certain lack of empathy towards others still exists; a lack of empathy caused by reason telling us not to involve ourselves in matters that don’t concern us.

That thinking must be rejected – instead we need to nurture our most basic human instinct: to help one another.

Too often I’ve heard people say that homelessness is somehow ‘their fault’ – an attitude which is evident in their behaviour. “He’s just homeless.”

What does ‘just homeless’ mean? Is it acceptable that a man is unconscious on the street because he’s homeless? We need to challenge the all-too-common assumption that the homeless are lazy drug addicts, on the street because they made the wrong choices. The homeless are often people fleeing abusive backgrounds, people who have suffered family breakdowns, relationship breakdowns, redundancies, mental illness and addiction.

Yes, addiction: another issue which the homeless are frequently blamed for. Whilst some become homeless due to addiction, others become addicted as a result of homelessness. Often, it happens that people struggling with issues like addiction end up homeless simply because they have nobody to turn to.

So is it really fair to blame those that use drugs to cope with homelessness? How else would you cope in the freezing conditions, shivering in your damp sleeping bag, with little to eat and no hope of things improving? The lives of those sleeping rough is entirely bleak and whilst drugs are not the answer to these problems, with a lack of help from the state and community, how else can we expect them to cope with the misery that homelessness brings?

I spoke to a Big Issue seller named Andy, selling near Brighton Station, who told me that recently a homeless man had overdosed on heroin and was lying in the street, with the needle still in his arm.

Given the location he was in, hundreds of people would have walked past him.

But almost all of them ignored him. One person even put a sheet of cardboard over him, so shoppers passing by wouldn’t take offence at the sight of a human being dying on the pavement.

Listening to this story shocked and disgusted me; that people witnessed a person dying and did nothing to help. Where is the sense of community?  I understand that people might be too frightened or apprehensive to physically intervene, or simply not know what to do to help. But walking away is the worst thing you can do.

By walking away, you are allowing someone to die on the street. At the very least, you should call an ambulance. Even if you are unsure if the person has overdosed, you should still call if they are in this state, especially if the person’s lips and / or fingertips are blue and their breathing is shallow.

Try to imagine living on 25p an hour, being ignored by almost everyone around you. Wouldn’t you think you were being treated unfairly?

It is important that we disable the fear we have regarding homeless people and the issues surrounding them, because if we don’t, we are unable to help them and risk dehumanising people.

Andy explained that the majority of people who walk past him deliberately try to avoid eye contact, with some even moving to the opposite side of the street. In almost five hours of standing in the freezing cold, he earnt just £1.25, which means he made roughly 25p an hour. Try to imagine living on that wage, whilst being ignored by almost everyone around you. Wouldn’t you think you were being treated unfairly?

If your answer is yes, then try to think about how you can connect with the homeless community, to eliminate the divide between us; a divide that is neither intrinsic nor inevitable, but a product of our carelessness and  ignorance.

I’ll admit that when I was much younger, I didn’t know what the Big Issue was and avoided vendors because I thought they were just trying to sell me things. So I, too contributed to making vendors feel like outcasts. By writing this, I hope that people become more aware of what it is, and the remarkable difference it can make on a person’s life.

We need to remember that as the current situation stands, the homeless are incredibly unsafe: not only are they living in the most abhorrent conditions, but they are significantly more likely to suffer from verbal, physical and sexual abuse. According to The National Network to End Domestic Violence, more than 90 percent of women who are homeless have suffered from severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. With one homeless woman calling sexual assault of the homeless ‘as common as the everyday cold.’ It is obvious that we need to address this issue immediately.

Aside from sexual assault, people are also having to exchange their bodies for a warm place to sleep for the night. This leads not only to exploitation and degradation, but puts the homeless person at greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.

Whilst it is up to individuals if they want to give money directly to homeless people, it is often more useful to give to charities instead, to protect people from being exploited by gangs, or using the money to feed their addiction. Offering food is also productive, but be respectful: don’t offer a corner of your half-chewed, unwanted sandwich: it’s important we help people to preserve their dignity as much as we can.

Nobody is “just homeless.” Above all, be kind and, as the old saying goes, ‘treat others as you wish to be treated’.

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