Homelessness in Cambridge: remembered in adversity, but otherwise forgotten

Image credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

During a particularly cold Lent term, the issue of homelessness in Cambridge was magnified once more. The response to the ‘Beast from the East’ was wholehearted: a RAG appeal alone raised a total of over £5,000 which has been donated to the homeless charity Wintercomfort; Jimmy’s Night Shelter received over 1000 items thanks to Embracing Cambridge’s winter appeal; and societies such as the Cambridge Homeless Outreach Programme (CHOP) were more determined than ever to lessen the effects of the bitter weather. Most importantly, we, as students were receptive, engaged and ready to support the cause.

Why though, must it take a national weather crisis for such an increase in student engagement to occur?  Why must a homeless person’s situation be particularly horrific before we stand up and take positive action? Surely the whole student body should be supporting these charities with as much vigour and enthusiasm in the summer months as we do in the winter? From a practical perspective, doing all we can to get people off the streets in the summer will help tackle desperation in the colder, more dangerous months of the year. It seems a simple conclusion to draw, yet come the summer, I fear that the rose-tinted spectacles of privilege will become a common accessory.

Quite frankly, it is ridiculous that in a university town boasting such affluence, the situation surrounding the homeless remains so dire.  It is the overwhelming sense of ignorance displayed through much of the student body that is most troubling. Thankfully, intentional acts of clear disrespect towards the homeless are uncommon, but unintentional passivity remains a worrying threat. It isn’t enough for us to rally behind a yearly winter appeal, or protest when we read that a shelter’s funding has been cut. Our support for the homeless needs to be continuous, because the problem itself is continuous.

For me, the key issue is the growing sense of normalisation surrounding homelessness, best illustrated by the shameful phrase: ‘you get used to it after a while’. Every moral inch of me screams that this is not an issue we should be ‘getting used to’, yet it is difficult to dispute the fact that the element of shock I felt after seeing a homeless person during fresher’s week has now become a regrettable feeling of acceptance. I feel guilty every time I pass a sleeping bag on my way to lectures, yet I still succumb to the conclusion that an increasing level of homelessness is becoming inevitable. Sadly, I am no longer surprised if I am approached for change on a night out; I have, in a sense, ‘got used to’ the problem.

There must always be a sense of urgency, a willingness to actively engage and a student-wide enthusiasm for the work of societies and groups in Cambridge. Our charitable sides shouldn’t only be shown in the light of a crisis or new appeal. Most importantly, we cannot forget that social change in Cambridge relies on the strength of continuous student participation.

To get rid of homelessness, we can’t simply get used to it.


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