We must all own up to our failures on homelessness

Jack May 15 October 2015

Shameful though it is, we’ve all done it. We’ve all walked past somebody homeless on the street. We’ve all made the effort to get to the other side of the pavement outside Sainsbury’s so we don’t have to face the question directly. “Have you get any change?”

These days, lots of us don’t – carrying cash often feels like a bit of an anachronism, and so more often than not, “I haven’t, I’m sorry!” is a genuine answer. But that’s not to say that a trip to the cash machine would be hard, or that it would take us all that long to pop into Sainsbury’s, pick up a hot dinner, bring it out, and give it to them. But we don’t. 

Our investigation shows this week that Cambridge’s homelessness problem is not only as endemic as it always has been, but it has worsened in recent years. 

Having said that, it’s important to go beyond the statistics, and to make sure that we understand the individuals behind them. 

That’s what makes the report from Colm Murphy so important – taking the time to talk to people, understand their stories and their hopes, is such an important part of beginning to change things for the better across the city. 

It would be tempting to resort to the old cliches – that if you give a homeless person money they’ll only spend it on alcohol, that you’re better off donating the odd quid to your local homelessness charity, and that it’s really best not to get involved on a personal level. 

We must stand up against such a reductive attitude. 

To really make a difference on the pressing issue of homelessness in our city, we must take a holistic approach. 

This involves lobbying individual councillors, the council as a whole, and national government to commit to further positive action on homelessness. This means taking heed of those cuts which have come down from central government and which have been shown to correlate to higher levels of homelessness in cities across the country. 

This means working more closely with volunteer organisations that are already extant in Cambridge, whether they be more student-focused, such as the Streetbite society, or localised, such as Jimmy’s Shelter. 

Fundamentally, this means understanding that those who have found themselves in the unimaginable situation of being without a home are human. Each has their own story, and a desire to build a better life for themselves and their families. 

We can no longer ignore the fate of those on our doorstep who have fallen on hard times. It’s not enough to be politically active, nor to give charitably, nor to hand over a few coins. We must do all this and more to help turn people’s lives around.