Helping the homeless in Cambridge

Image credit: Franco Folini

In light of recent events, there remains a desire to help the homeless, but perhaps still some uncertainty about where to channel it, and where it can be put to the best use. In perhaps the most notable way so far, a JustGiving page set up by Shashwat Jha has raised £3,633.60 for Jimmy’s Cambridge, an emergency shelter, at my point of writing, surpassing its original goal of £3000. The quantity requested of each donation, £20, is, itself, symbolic.  Jha writes, “£20 provides up to 20 meals for Jimmy's guests on any given day. £26 is the cost for a homeless person to have a bed, evening meal and breakfast, for each night. If we work together to bring about social change, then we can truly touch so many lives.” Making a donation is one of the most effective ways to help, but questioning which charities will put the money to best use is a question that is difficult to answer when we have no experience and little knowledge of what truly helps.

Groundswell Inclusive Solutions to Homelessness is a registered charity based in London that focuses on harnessing the feedback and experiences of homeless people to develop services that will help others. They ground their studies in Participatory Action Research (PAR), which they define as “research with people rather than research on people.” In his Sunday Times bestselling book, More Human, former director of strategy for David Cameron, Steve Hilton, advocates exactly this game plan for developing and implementing policies that are actually effective, instead of, at best, the usual well-intentioned yet frustratingly out-of-touch amenities. In 2007, Groundswell published ’The Escape Plan’, a “peer research study conducted by and for homeless people to help identify the critical success factors that have enabled people to move on from homelessness.” The study was based on in depth qualitative interviews with 25 formerly homeless people and up to two of their significant others, through which they identified seven themes that underpin the physical and mental process of getting off the streets:

1. Being involved in a group.
2. Changing your attitude towards yourself and others.
3. Hitting rock bottom, or a turning point that makes you realise you cannot continue living like this.
4. The help of workers and services, particularly those that “will go the extra mile, stick with you, utilise their personal experience, challenge, encourage, believe in you, value you and care.
5. Talking to peers, and share perspectives.
6. Realising the importance of and engaging with friends and family,
7. Reflecting on the experience, and realising its multi-faceted nature. This involves accepting that though the experience was negative, there were positive features, such as “the unique camaraderie of street life” and “increased resourcefulness gained”.

The 72-page report includes the specific responses of those interviews, and expands on the specific and diverse ways through which each theme was achieved. Crucially, it recognises the nuances and subtleties of homelessness. For example, the question of how to define having “successfully moved on from homelessness” is the first issue they touch on, and conclude that it is not simply the physical state of having a home, but a mentality characterised in seven ways: 

“1) People feel they have control of their personal finances;

2) People want to be a part of a community outside of the homeless community and have taken steps towards achieving this;

3) People feel their accommodation is now their home and have made some kind of investment in it such as decorating or buying new stuff for it;

4) People feel some kind of stability in their accommodation and not that it is going to fall apart or be taken away from them imminently;

5) When people have issues they face them and if they use services, they are not homeless ones;

6) People feel they are not longer just surviving, but involved in things that go wider than themselves;

7) People no longer see the worst in others and expect others to see the worst in them.”

This lays the groundwork for a bottoms-up approach that focuses on improving one’s psychological welfare, and letting it naturally influence the motivation to exact physical change. 

In light of this, it seems one of the most beneficial ways that we can help is to donate to organisations that aid these processes, like Jimmy’s. Located on East Road, Jimmy’s provides short-term, emergency accommodation, and meals for those who are homeless. They also work towards developing longer-term solutions by offering services and workshops which help develop the skills   they think are most important, and which employers are looking for, like budgeting, cooking, dealing with the authorities, IT, managing debt and living independently. In line with the results of Groundswell’s research, they also offer amenities designed to develop a sense of responsibility, and being a part of a community, including sport and creative workshops, the help of staff and volunteers who specialise in dealing with mental health issues, and the chance to help with running of the centre.

Less directly, it is important for us to dismantle the stigma that many subconsciously associate with people sleeping rough, which can conflict with our ability to see them as people with identities that extend beyond their living situation, and with more to say than “Spare a bit of change, please.” Personally, joining Streetbite, a food-distributing organisation, has given me a chance to talk to people on the streets about their experiences and interests. One man, who studied History many years ago, and I talked about a recording of Plato’s ‘Timaeus’ he had listened to earlier in the week, during which he thought of that Philosophy student he sees every Tuesday afternoon. Another way to break the barrier is through art. I met Meggie, a third-year at Clare, through Streetbite. She tells me, “I signed up immediately after watching Stuart: A Life Backwards”. The play, adapted from the book written by former St. Edmund’s College student Alexander Masters and set in Cambridge, tells the story of Stuart Shorter, a young man whose childhood experiences eventually led him to life on the streets. The team behind its recent production hoped “to challenge your pre-conceptions and raise awareness of the root causes of homelessness”, and evidently succeeded.The team’s commitment to raising awareness extends beyond the production itself; most famously, they staged a sleep-out near the Mill Lane lecture theatre in January this year, with the aim of raising a £1000 for Jimmy’s Cambridge. They have also visited Jimmy’s and joined an art workshop at Wintercomfort Day Centre, both of which are documented at their blog, stuartalifebackwards.wordpress.com. Productions and books, especially when they are set within the sights we see every day, which can move and inspire are incredibly important - this is a call to arms to artists, writers, playwrights, singers, and raisers-of-voices alike.

For those who have been inspired, joining Streetbite is one way to get involved in providing short-term solutions, which is unique in how easy it is to participate. Its community of 450 members take weekly or bi-weekly shifts distributing food along routes which the organisers have identified as having the largest numbers of people sleeping rough, meaning that it is a low-commitment way to help, especially for students who do not have masses of money and time. Most impressively, it currently has people to take every single one of its three shifts a day, meaning that there is always a meal, or just a hot drink, available for people on the streets. EAT, the cafe located in Lion Yard, also donates the food it has left at the end of each day to those who work the night shifts.

It isn’t enough to want to help; it’s crucial to find ways to do so that are most effective. In essence: inspire and get inspired, learn about the issue and how best to help, then volunteer, and donate where you can. Here is the link for the official donations page for Jimmy's: https://www.justgiving.com/jimmyscambridge. 

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