Society likes stereotypes and none is more potent than the image of a homeless person; lazy, disorderly and indifferent—nothing can be more wrong

 

Homelessness has risen by 55 per cent since 2010 and it is estimated that 2,744 people sleep rough in England on any one night. The issue is particularly pressing for young people, with under-25 year-olds making up a third of those homeless. Given the scale of the problem it is difficult to understand how indifference and even hostility towards the homeless can be so prevalent.

It is common for the homeless to be viewed as a public nuisance rather than vulnerable individuals. The focus is often on the threat that the homeless pose to others, in aspects such as anti-social behaviour, rather than the homeless being seen as victims themselves. A quick look at the facts though reveals these assumptions to be unfounded, with homeless people being 13 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general public.

The perception that the homeless have brought their situation upon themselves through poor life decisions is equally unreasonable. In reality a variety of interlinking factors, often beyond the control of the individual, can lead to homelessness. A report by the homelessness charity, St Mungo’s Broadway, found that those who become homeless often have a background of unsettled upbringing including abuse or bereavement. These experiences often contribute to mental health issues and drug or alcohol abuse, which are only exacerbated by life on the streets.

As many as four in ten people who began sleeping rough in London in 2012/2013 had mental health support needs. These background factors mean that an individual is less likely to be able to cope with difficult circumstances, and may find themselves on the streets as a consequence. The most common trigger for homelessness is relationship breakdown (28 per cent), closely followed by eviction (26 per cent). And then there are other things like domestic violence, with 39 per cent of St Mungo’s female clients being made homeless because of it.

With troubled family histories and relationship breakdowns forming a major cause of homelessness, there is often little support available from friends and family to those who sleep rough. Without a permanent address, it is also difficult to access support for mental illnesses or addictions. Isolated and marginalised from society, it is unreasonable to judge the homeless for being unable to get their life back on track.

Rather than blaming the individuals, homelessness can be seen as a result of government failures. The shortage of affordable housing, jobs, social support and mental health care have all contributed to rising homelessness. At a time of budget cuts to the welfare system, with the government planning to scrap housing benefit for 18-25 year-olds and lower the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000, the need to challenge the stigmas surrounding homelessness is more urgent than ever. A number of charities have expressed concerns that removing housing benefit for young people will lead to an increase in homelessness, with Shelter commenting: ‘taking away the safety net that stands between some young people and homelessness would be a disaster’.

There is a common perception that the homeless are simply too lazy to seek assistance, as the council is obliged to help them find a home. Yet, with the exception of Scotland, in the UK, local authorities are only obliged to offer accommodation to those who have not made themselves ‘intentionally’ homeless and come under the priority need categories such as those with dependent children, pregnant women, those under 16, those made homeless as a result of an emergency or those suffering from a mental illness or physical disability. For example, an individual who is evicted by their family would not be considered a ‘priority need’ as they are deemed to have made themselves homeless. The majority of single people who approach their local authority will not be eligible for housing. Given the requirements for priority need it is unsurprising that rough sleepers are most likely to be single men.

Another false assumption is that individuals are homeless because they are too lazy to work. Yet the charity Crisis has found that the vast majority of homeless people want to work, they simply face significant barriers to this, including mental health problems, lack of education, and low self-esteem. Whilst only 2 per cent of homeless people are in full-time employment, 13 per cent do voluntary work, suggesting a real desire for self-improvement.

In an attempt to challenge the social stigmas surrounding homelessness Shout Out UK is releasing a short film, The Director which follows a young filmmaker’s efforts to make a documentary on homelessness. The film will take a light-hearted look at this controversial issue through the genre of social comedy. The protagonist, aspiring director, Patrick, highlights the ignorant prejudices many people hold against the homeless, thus challenging the negative stereotypes associated with homelessness.

Shout Out UK is currently raising funds for the production of the film. For more information or to make a donation to support the project visit this link: https://www.shoutoutuk.org/the-director/