“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean that you’re stupid, or deserve it.”
Coming back from the train station yesterday we ran into a guy who, well, looked unhinged. He was skittish, asking for money for a taxi and refusing my apologetic replacement offer of food, and seemed to be dancing on the brink of doing something drastic. He might have been homeless, he might not, but it was pretty clear where the money would be going: a short term solution to his problems. The four of us – liberal, caring, receptive to homelessness given the nature of this project – felt vulnerable. And concerned. Someone fished around for a bit of money and he moved off to approach other people that had just left the train.
I don’t mean to use this story as a firebrand, or to flesh out any form of god complex. I’m not naive enough to think that I could diagnose and solve an individual’s problems with a fleeting moment of contact. But these situations do force you to think, deeply and sincerely, about what the best course of action for a guy like that would be. Is it to be enabled to continue going as he is? Well, long term, no. He’ll suffer and the people he comes into contact with will suffer. Is it to be cordoned off into a room until his ‘problems’ wane away? Is it to be supported and watched 24 / 7?
One team of people offering reasoned, compassionate answers to those questions are the volunteers and support workers working with Jane Heeney at Jimmy’s night shelter. Jimmy’s is the first port of call for anyone without a home in the city. Guest can stay immediately, waiting list-permitting, and receive support as they apply for housing benefit, therapy, and re-integrate back into some form of society.
I went to speak to Jane, the head of the service, and allowed the conversation to guide my own muddy thinking. Many people that we’ve spoken to on the streets absolutely detest the shelter services, and part of me entirely sympathises with them. The arguments are varied: that the people that work in services such as Jimmys are just careerists trying to “improve their CVs”; that workers are being paid “crazy amounts of money” that should be earmarked for the homeless; or that the activities that they launch are part of a system “that treats you like a fucked up kid…even when you’re 35”.
And, you know, I get it. To go from being on the streets to having accommodation is anything but a speedy process. If, at any point along the journey from shelter to hostel to move on house to council house, you violate the terms of living – which are incredibly stringent if you’re talking to someone looking for housing, and incredibly accommodating if you’re talking to someone administering the shelter – you get kicked out and have to begin the process again. It seems as if everyone homeless has at some point gone through the services system and either ended up with a house, or missed out and now has an reflexive rejection of the ‘solutions’ in place. As a result, they get a point where they say, “fuck this. Fuck their rules. I want to be free”.
But I’m sympathetic up to a point. I looked into the financials of the shelter, and over time it has become better at spending its money on charitable activities. Charities Choice says that the percentage of money spent on charitable activities has increased from 99.4% to 99.9% since 2010, and that for every pound donated, 0.0p is spent on fundraising, and 0.1p is spent on wages. That leaves 99.9p for activities — an admirable return.
Enter Jane. With sharply chopped red hair and the occasional piercing, she gives the impression of someone who has successfully retained her identity in the face of increasing responsibility. I liked her frankness, her honesty, and I especially liked that she called me out on some of the terms I was using: “I don’t like your use of ‘the system’. Because that implies that it’s one system. It’s not. We do work really hard at the projects in Cambridge to centre support around the person, rather than saying ‘this is what we’ve got and that’s where you’re gonna go.’”
Jane started at Jimmy’s in December of 1995 as a volunteer, a couple of months after it opened, and has been there since. I asked why she was drawn to homelessness. She said that she’d had some “personal experience with issues around homelessness”, which we didn’t probe any further, but it was clear that she was able to talk to both myself and people using the shelter with an empathy that was free from the limiting effects of pity.
The shelter has space for 20 men and women (and two dogs), and since 1995, they’ve worked with over 6,000 different people. Given how long she’d been working in the area for, I asked if there had been changes to homelessness in Cambridge over time. Jane paused, thinking. “There have been changes. When I started, I guess.. we really were just plugging a hole. The main change is that we [the services] are all better coordinated. We work together. And we realise that for 99% of people it’s not about a bed. It’s about re-equipping people with skills and confidence. Giving people choices… A bed just provides brief respite from the street. For the first few days it’s just a bed. But then we do our damndest to help long term.”
She acknowledged that thriving in the shelter involves a mindset change: “you do have to be quite smart and play the game to a certain extent. If you’re not willing to do that… we say to our guests, well, what’s more important to you? You can on principle refuse to play the game. Then you’re just gonna stay homeless. Everyone has to take some responsibility for themselves. We do firmly believe that. It may well be that the first step to responsibility is ‘do your own washing’. Cook a meal here. Actually, don’t come in here – don’t go to any service in Cambridge – and expect everything to be given to you on a plate. Because it’s not. Absolutely not.” Her gaze intensified. “Used to be, in the olden days. But we learned. Other services learned that that’s not the way to regain your self confidence and your sense of self worth.
“All we can do is offer safety, security, a hot meal and a bed and really, really gentle chipping away. So, you know, ‘did you remember to have your shower today? Brilliant’. That’s the first step. ‘Come and sit in the lounge with the other people’ – that’s the second step. Because if you’ve been street homeless on your own, it’s scary.
“But we never write anyone off. We never just go, pfffff. If someone’s not engaging, they might have a little break for a while and then come back. It’s never… don’t come back again.”
That was what I was looking for the answer to. Upon hearing that people staying at Jimmy’s have tasks and curfews, and that failing to abide these tasks and curfews lead to being ejected, the obvious answer for part of me was that the homeless people were in the right. Shoehorning an individual into an arbitrary structure appeared offensive, unnecessary, and the idea that turning up 5 minutes late in the evening was reason to be thrown out into the cold had a logic that was abhorrent enough to be believable.
But I don’t think it’s necessarily the case. Going back to the man at the beginning, I truly do believe as if the support of a community is what is needed to get over any troubles in his life. Maybe that will come from AA, or NA, or one of the homelessness services. That support might be grating – it will, by necessity, enforce a structure – but this is empowering. Being gently but firmly encouraged to re-integrate is a necessary step on the road to self confidence, and, ultimately, taking control again.
I finished by asking why she keeps going. “I want to keep giving people a voice. The only thing that links people here is that they don’t have a roof over their head. Nothing else. I love it when you get comments like ‘that person’s homeless, and he’s reading Dostoyevsky’, cause you just think you think, ‘yeah, and?’”