How can Cambridge students help homeless people?

Josephine Skorupski 26 January 2018

It is almost impossible to walk through the city centre of Cambridge without seeing at least one homeless person, and while many of us may feel guilty, we still continue to walk on by. It can sometimes feel as if we’re powerless to do anything to help the people who sleep so near to us aside from giving money. Yet there are more ways in which we can help that may not trigger the structural change needed to fight the rise in homelessness and rough sleeping, but can alleviate the sense of invisibility and loneliness many endure in Cambridge and around the world every day.    

Undoubtedly, giving to homeless charities does a lot of good. Charities such as Centrepoint and DePaul UK work with young people who end up homeless, Crisis and Shelter give practical help and campaign on behalf of the homeless. These charities prevent and end many cases of homelessness and are essential in the long-term fight against homelessness.

Yet while giving to charities is obviously hugely beneficial, their impacts are less direct on the people we see around us every day. We have the choice to give to those in need in person, directly acknowledging someone’s existence ourselves in their time of need. However, this can have its controversies, with the argument that giving money helps fund drink or drug addictions.

This is may seem a reasonable enough approach, yet it may lead to us giving nothing at all. Not all homeless people suffer from substance abuse, or will choose to spend the money on alcohol or drugs, and even if they do, they still need our help and compassion. Homeless people that are forced to beg have already lost so much of their autonomy, giving a little money, even without the knowledge of what they will spend it on, gives some of it back with the choices and opportunities money offers.  

Yet, ultimately, it comes down to a personal choice from ourselves and how we think best to give our money. We should be as compassionate as we can be towards those we pass every day, and perhaps judge whether it is wise to give on a case by case basis. Sometimes, offering food, warm drinks and clothes may be the safest and kindest option, allowing us to give help to those who most need it without causing any harm. Small acts of kindness like these stops us treating homeless people as if they are invisible.

The University also offers many opportunities to volunteer and work with homeless people directly. These include: Streetbite, where students in small groups offer food and company to those on the streets, and the Cambridge Homelessness Outreach Programme (CHOP), who collaborate with local organisations supporting the homeless such as Jimmy’s and Wintercomfort. Once again, they involve students engaging directly, putting an emphasis on improving homeless people’s emotional well-bein as well as physical well-being.

Finally, one simple but still meaningful way we can help that costs nothing, with little time commitment, is to engage with homeless people themselves. To help stop the feeling that they sit beneath our notice, left behind by society, we should not just offer our pity, but respect them as fellow citizens of our city. We must offer smiles, conversation, and company, as well as our loose change.