Homelessness in Cambridge: More than a kneejerk reaction

Hannah Brown 1 March 2017

Pembroke College has recently been subject to a number of attacks by the media, becoming something of a black sheep in Cambridge. National newspapers have been swept up in controversy over bop themes, furore over menus and, moreover, the drunken antics of a fresher. The news that a white tie-clad Pembroke student had burned a £20 note in front of a homeless man has not only shaken and angered the college community but also galvanised a spirit of responsibility and emphasised the need for students to take action, according to Louis Slater, a RAG committee member and, until recently, Pembroke JPC Charities Officer.

Louis Slater explains that there has been a ‘big push all over Cambridge but particularly in Pembroke to raise money for Jimmy’s Homeless Shelter’ in response to recent events. His personal experience has assured him that Jimmy’s is ‘legit, I know what they’re doing is good and I know that the impact that they’re having is life-changing, literally.’

Undoubtedly, this charitable push will have positive outcomes. Louis explains that Jimmy’s provides accommodation, food and support for homeless people in Cambridge, and that ‘adamant’ that the charitable support not be ‘a permanent thing’: ‘What they want to do is be the stepping stone in someone’s life, to try to get them out of their life and out of homelessness’.

But I find this sense of impermanence in the current charitability troubling given the heftiness of Cambridge’s homelessness problem, clear to us each day as we make our way to and from lectures and libraries, easily turning our heads as we walk past the many people who find themselves on the streets here. Indeed, Louis describes the current momentum as ‘disaster relief’ – ‘whenever there’s a natural disaster people then donate a lot of money’. It seems to me that the response is a guilty kneejerk, not least to the media’s attacks on the university culture. I wonder if for some their charity is an attempt to counter the media stereotypes of the Cambridge student.

Louis rejects this: ‘No, I don’t think it’s a defensive thing at all, I think it’s a human thing. I think it’s a very emotional thing, it’s an emotional response that you give when you hear what happened.’ But he cannot deny the guilty undertones that have been revealed, suggesting that ‘people want to give using that same emotional momentum because they feel bad’.

This guilt cannot be criticised, especially in the light of the ‘privilege’ that Louis highlights is enjoyed by Cambridge students: ‘yeah, we might be in nine grand of debt a year but look where we’re going to be after this, look at the kind of relative luxury that we’re living in at the moment. So yeah we do have a responsibility.’

But more than this, he emphasises the wealth of colleges and the huge discrepancies within Cambridge. He tells me, ‘I’d say the colleges actually have a much greater responsibility. There’s hundreds of rooms in Cambridge colleges that no one sleeps in every night. How does that make any sense at all? That these colleges have endowments of millions, tens and hundreds of millions of pounds and are just not doing shit?’ He describes his difficulties in pushing Pembroke to donating leftover food to homelessness charities.

Bringing together the responsibility of students and colleges is a way in which Louis suggests this kneejerk reaction can be transformed into a long-term involvement of the university in local issues, to keep the momentum going and to continue combatting the issue of homelessness. ‘Push your colleges. Why should a college have rooms that aren’t being stayed in? Why should a college have hundreds of millions of pounds of endowment, money just literally sitting in the bank?’

Above all, Louis highlights that this is an opportunity to change mind-sets, what he considers to be key in tackling the problem. He tells me, ‘don’t let it be a one-time thing – let it change your mind-set, let it make you think differently when you see a homeless person’. He criticises society’s perceptions of homeless people, telling me, ‘if you ever do go sit with a homeless person, you will notice just how much people completely ignore you – it’s like you’re not there, you’re invisible, you’re not a valued member of society at all. And having spoken to people, that is something they struggle with more than the rough sleeping itself. And it takes nothing from you, just to kind of appreciate these people and appreciate that it’s not their fault, these people don’t choose to be in that position, you shouldn’t judge them for that, and we all need to try to help them somehow.’

He concludes that this is how we can ensure change in the long term, beyond the aftershocks of the recent ‘natural disaster’ of the note-burning. His two-pronged approach:  ‘speak to homeless people and let them change your mind’ and ‘let’s make colleges fucking do something’.