Indeed, as I hustled and bustled through Oxford Circus this weekend, loaded up with frivolous festive goods, I saw someone sitting on a frosted cardboard box barely able to shake a cup of change because of the cold. The differences could not be more apparent. The majority of us are lucky enough to have supportive families and a safe, warm place to sleep at night – it is almost impossible to imagine how someone can end up on the streets.
After reading some of the ‘Homelessness at Christmas’ appeals and the real-life example stories given by Shelter, Crisis and Centrepoint, there are seemingly two underlying factors which recur: mental health problems and family breakdown. A Shelter report states that 75,000 children in the UK will be homeless this Christmas Day. A shocking figure. Imagine these children waking up on Christmas Day in a shelter or temporary accommodation unsure about whether or not they will still be there by New Year’s Day – let alone if Santa will find them at their ‘new home’- it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Unfortunately, it does not look like homelessness is on the decline, if anything, reports show that it is on the rise. The recession, cuts to services, and various austerity measures have taken their toll, but are things actually worse for homeless people at Christmas time? Are the Christmas campaigns by coffee shops and supermarkets felt? Or is Christmas just another cold day to struggle through?
Dissatisfied with my internet searches, I went to chat to a man who is regularly busking outside my local Tesco with his feisty (scary!) Staffordshire Bull Terrier. After giving him a few mince pies, a cup of tea and a dog bone, I talked to him about his experiences of life on the streets.
His name is Ryan. He is a young, smiley guy, who burns incense whilst strumming on a guitar singing ‘Lucky Man’ by the Verve. He told me that this would be his first Christmas homeless; he had been on the streets for six months after running out of friends’ sofas to sleep on. I asked him if he planned to use any of the supports services in the area this Christmas which I had read about online. He said that he had an outreach worker, but that Christmas centres did not open for the next few weeks. Even then the closest centre is in Angel, and his current preferred Tesco, the one close to my house, is a few miles north of there. He wasn’t sure if he would go there for Christmas; when he had been there before he found it hard to listen to the problems of other homeless people and said there wasn’t much privacy. Also, many centres wouldn’t let his dog in and there was no way he was going to leave her outside.
Despite his situation, his positivity was truly remarkable. His words were full of hope for the future, but as I trudged back to the warmth of my flat I couldn’t help but consider the greater implications of his situation. He is not just homeless at Christmas, he is homeless full stop. The plight of the homeless is magnified at this time of year, but the seriousness of the situation extends far beyond that.
The issues of mental illness and abuse underpinning many a homeless person’s experience are far too complex to be solved with a little festive goodwill. These are issues that persist every day, not just when the rest of the population gets briefly caught-up in the spirit of giving. The onus must be on both the government and wider public to ensure that rising homelessness becomes an issue of rising importance in 2013, and is not forgotten at the stroke of midnight on December 31st.