I go through the city centre pretty much every day, and over the last year or two, it seems to me that homelessness is getting worse. In particular, the streets around New Street Station and the road area adjacent to John Bright Street have a lot of rough sleeping, often during the day when it’s safer. I surmise this is the ‘trickle down’ of austerity policy - it takes a number of years from the full appalling effect to be felt and seen.
I’ve been kicking some thoughts around in my head about this, mainly about how each privileged (and housed) individual is powerless - or certainly feels powerless - to act against the system that creates these ill-effects. We’re a wealthy nation, and yet people mostly walk past the abomination of homelessness, either because they don’t want to do anything about it, or don’t know how to.
I have flitted from one side to the other on the question of whether one should give money. I have a friend who used to do homeless food “outreach” with his church, and his advice was always “no”. And yet, when I explain this pampered middle-class advice to the umpteenth homeless person who just wants to get a hostel room for the night, they walk off angrily, retorting that “we’re not all smack-heads, you know”.
So, I drift between buying someone a coffee, or a sandwich - they’re usually sick of sandwiches - or risking it and giving some money. I feel frustrated that the burden of helping lands on charitably-minded people, with most people rushing past, never having dug into the wallet pocket of their expensive suits. I’m annoyed, also, that whilst giving anything is a nice gesture, it’s largely meaningless - homeless folks don’t just need food to eat, or a room for one night only. They need permanent shelter, assistance from trained support workers, and a lot of extended mental health or addiction counselling. I’d probably need to pull £20K minimum out of my back pocket to have a reasonable hope of making a permanent difference to just one person.
To further complicate matters, I’ve been approached by (and have also heard of) non-homeless people begging for money, under a variety of pretexts. Usually it’s their car/bike having allegedly been stolen, or they’ll buy you something on their debit card which has £3 on it in return for the same cash amount (card is probably nicked), etc. So, if I complain that there are not enough people who will help the homeless, there’s some really nasty people out there giving folks a good reason to walk on by: we don’t even know that people asking for money are genuinely needy.
I’ve also been pondering whether any of this blight can be alleviated with technology. I know what you’re thinking: “it’s the system, stupid”, and yes, I agree. But if that is presently an unmoveable object, perhaps one just has to work around it (at least in the short term). I haven’t done much research into the below (and I have had several people pour cold water on them) but, food for thought and idle discussion? I also recognise the ethical problems inherent in letting the council (or London govt) off their moral responsibilities (and transferring them unevenly to charity).
My first idea is an donation point in a highly visible place like Victoria Square (which of course would require council permission). It’d have a contactless payment gizmo on it, and people could use a touch-screen to point to a number of preset donation amounts. Monies would go to a local hostel, who can take one homeless person for ~£12 per night. The thing would cost around £300ish (Raspberry Pi, card sensor, internet dongle, rudimentary screen, and the lion’s share of the cost on a reinforced container unit). The box would feature lots of marketing material. It’d use a PayPal/Stripe API.
I think there are some coin donation boxes in the shopping area of New Street, but does anyone use them? I’m hoping that the electronic nature (and high visibility) of my idea would draw attention to it, and make donating a novelty. But, of course, I have no idea if people would donate. I’ve no idea either if the council would flatly reject the idea out of hand.
Another idea, which is much less fleshed out, is a voucher system for hostels. They may already have something of this kind, but perhaps people who would normally give money would prefer to buy these vouchers instead. They might be sold in newsagents or in Indie Birmingham cafes etc. Now, the risk here is that vouchers just become another trading mechanism for bad drugs, but to my mind, they might still be better (safer) than money.
Right, that’s a brain dump, see if you can make sense of it. I’d be interested in any responses on this wide theme.