My colleague Dean is telling me about his day, his harrowing day. Most of it has been spent at the hospital supporting Samantha. Samantha is 31 and she has been addicted to heroin since the age of 15. Her weakened immune system has led to the onset of septicaemia. Dean found her in her usual rough sleeping spot lying in he own faeces and called an ambulance.
Samantha has lived the life of a homeless drug addict for the last decade. All her friends are from the street. Today she was visited in hospital by her boyfriend who is also a heroin user. He is found by her bed with a syringe, surreptitiously trying to inject her. There is uproar. Nurses and security are called and he is bundled out of the ward. Dean arrives at the height of the commotion and succeeds in calming Samantha, preventing her, dressed in a hospital gown, following her boyfriend out of the building and back to sleeping rough.
The usually imperturbable Dean is dejected. ‘She has lost the will to live’ he says and I ask him why he thinks that is. ‘It’s because of her life’ he replies, ‘she was raped by her father at 13’. ‘That’s terrible’ I reply weakly, reflecting that this is information to which no response can be adequate.
Later I find myself thinking further about the conversation with Dean, ruminating on the thanklessness of his task and the challenge of explaining to others the complexities of the heroic work undertaken by colleagues like him. Dean is aware that his appearance at the hospital is observed with weary apprehension by the hospital staff. Samantha has had many admissions and for over-worked nurses it is difficult to view the arrival of a disruptive homeless woman as anything other than bad news. Yet there is ambivalence in their reactions as they respect the tenacity he shows in not giving up on her.
We work with many people like Samantha, men and woman who have suffered childhood trauma after which they have drifted into drug and alcohol misuse and petty crime. By early adulthood they are afflicted by extremely poor physical and mental health. Not all, or even most, of the homeless people we support have this type of history, but there are enough for us to view this grimly inexorable early life journey as unexceptional. Consequently we are identified as an organisation specialising in helping the most vulnerable and chaotic which can, of course, translate into the most damaged and repugnant.
These extreme representations of homelessness are visible and, as such, influential. For many of the public they are ‘the homeless’, even though homelessness affects a great range of different people in a variety of ways. Eliciting public support for the homeless can therefore be an enormous challenge. Even convincing my relatives and friends has sometimes been a struggle. A few years ago at my mother’s 80th birthday celebration she asked guests to give a donation to either her son’s homelessness charity or a children’s charity with which my father had an association stretching back to his youth. During the celebration a number of people felt obligated to explain how it was that the children’s charity was their preferred choice. Their reluctance to give to the homeless charity was based on a suspicion that some of the homeless had ‘brought it on themselves’.
It’s a phrase that neatly encapsulates the public’s diffidence and occasional hostility towards homeless people. The innocuous rough sleeper in the shop doorway is viewed with pity, sympathy but also bewilderment. ‘Don’t some of them want to sleep out on the street?’ is a question that has been put to me with unerring constancy over the years. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the inebriated street drinker or visibly mentally distressed homeless person can provoke disgust or fear.
Of the attributes most likely to attract approval and support it seems to me that innocence is the most advantageous. The innocent have brought nothing on themselves, instead things have been done to them. And nothing is more innocent than an animal, at least of the cute, cuddly, furry and fluffy variety.
As a new, callow Chief Executive I remember expressing dismay at the pathetic financial return we had achieved through our Christmas fund-raising advertisement to the Chief Executive of another homelessness charity who kindly advised me to ‘put a dog in the picture’. His pragmatic analysis was that, whilst vast swathes of the public are largely unmoved by the plight of the homeless, many more people do have sympathy for the dogs that typically or, rather, stereotypically accompany rough sleepers. His experience was that the addition of a dog in the marketing material substantially increased donations.
In 2006 his view was corroborated when, to complement a series of programmes commissioned to show how the public can help homeless people, a BBC opinion poll dispiritingly found that twice as many people would feel sympathy for a homeless dog than for a homeless person with mental health or drug problems.
More recently, a supporter working in a senior position for one of the major supermarkets told me about the dilemma the business faced when they developed a fund-raising challenge requiring customers to select which of two local charities should receive a donation from the supermarket at the end of the month. On each occasion when an animal charity went head-to-head with a charity where the beneficiaries were not animals it won comprehensively. Eventually, the initiative was restructured so that animal charities were only allowed to compete against one another.
Earlier this year we experienced directly and unexpectedly the impact of the cute and furry on the public psyche when Thames Reach was bizarrely beset by a brief squall of animal-related publicity. One evening my colleague Kate Jones, a member of our London Street Rescue team which works on the streets with rough sleepers every night of the year, came across a distressed cat identified by her name tag as Freya. She took Freya home and cared for her overnight. In the morning she contacted the owner who was revealed to be a certain George Osborne of
11 Downing Street. A large car
duly arrived to transport Freya home in style.
If Kate had been so inclined she could have filled the whole day undertaking interviews on television and radio. Probably wisely, she chose not to. An article describing her experience ran in the Guardian and the accolades poured down on both Kate and Thames Reach. ‘People like you Kate are the reason why there is still some hope for this species’ ran one comment, favourited by 147 readers.
We were pleased to have helped Freya but also aware that in the week she rescued a cat, Kate and the team had been working tirelessly but with limited success to help off the streets 25 individuals bedded down in a shopping mall in east London, people with few options consigned to sleeping rough in distressing circumstances for weeks, even months. It felt like a bleak week for homeless humans.
But it is time for me to stop bemoaning our lot. Whilst we know that in terms of public sympathy donkeys will always trump homeless people, we are grateful to the many individuals who loyally support our work, especially the people who were, or are, homeless and prepared to tell their tale; explaining, educating, inspiring.
And, of course, everything is relative. I am at a House of Commons function, speaking to another Chief Executive. It is our first meeting. We are affably talking about the challenges of attracting funding and I ask him what his organisation does as it is not immediately obvious from its title. He hesitates. It is almost imperceptible but I can sense that he is quickly weighing me up. ‘We work with sex offenders’ he says briskly. ‘How’s the public fund-raising going?’ I ask. He laughs ruefully, knowing that he doesn’t need to answer.