By Adam Cunnane
I had not been having a good week. Amongst other things, the queuing system at Tesco’s had thrown me into an existential crisis. I had begun to ponder what the morass of queuing said about the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence.
Wrenching myself from my musings, I decided to go out for a run. Big mistake. The freezing cold air embraced every facet of my body; warmth seemed like something from a distant, former life. An aspiration to the ideal, nothing more. Returning home, I had the luxury of pressing myself up against the radiator, trying to absorb as much heat as possible.
The cold has been on everyone’s lips this week (in more ways than one). As if we have been paid by the weather to engage in a guerrilla marketing campaign, it has not failed to come up in almost every conversation I’ve had this week. But for some people, there is very little respite from the cold.
Between February 2015 and 2016, the number of people sleeping rough has increased 30%, meaning that on every one night there are around 3,569 people who shelter in doorways, bus shelters and alleyways. But this figure is misleading. To be homeless is not just to sleep on the street, but to couch-surf, to live in temporary accommodation, temporary shelter. To this end, 120,000 children are expected to be homeless this Christmas (See The Guardian page on homelessness).
The average life expectancy of a homeless person in the UK is now 47 years, according to the government. That’s 34 years lower than the national average.
The statistics look even worse if you focus on specific groups of people. 40% of those sleeping rough now have a mental health problem, according to statistics in The Guardian, while the Kennedy Trust informs us that one quarter of young homeless people identify as LGBTQ+.
It’s very easy, I think, for statistics to become meaningless. We tend to forget that homelessness can happen to anyone at any time. Take my Grandad for instance. Coming to this country from Ireland in 1950, he didn’t have anywhere to live. So he slept on the benches of train stations until he could find a job. And I couldn’t even go out for a run for 20 minutes because it was too cold.
I spoke to Darryn Hook at Sanctuary 21 in Durham about what we can do to help. He told me that they already receive “quite a lot of support from students” with Castle’s Community Action group regularly coming to volunteer in the kitchen they use to provide free food to the homeless. They tend to get about 13-14 homeless people a day in Durham.
He stressed that in order to help, people can offer to volunteer with them or perhaps make up a bag with practical things, such as blankets, toiletries and non-perishable foods. This really depends on demand however, so do get in touch with Sanctuary 21 or homeless charities in your local area and see whether they could use more donations.
But as the homeless charity Thames Reach, quoted in the Metro, advises (2nd March, 2016), you can always just buy some “food or a cup of tea” for those who are living on the streets. We have a Durham foodbank that everyone can donate to ( https://durham.foodbank.org.uk/ for locations), and the wonderful charity Food Cycle that prepares a meal for homeless people in Durham every week, is always on the lookout for volunteers. They collect surplus food from cafes and the market to cook with in order to reduce food waste. See http://foodcycle.org.uk/location/durham/ for more details.
There are other simple ways in which people can help. Julie Wearmouth, the Housing Team leader of Durham County Council recommends contacting StreetLink if you think someone is sleeping rough. They’ll then pass the information on to the local authority or council, who will work out how they can best help. Julie continues that “StreetLink allows the local community to be part of the solution to homelessness and provide a more effective response to rough sleeping.” They can be contacted on 0300 500 0914 or via their website at www.streetlink.org.uk.
I rang them up a couple of weeks ago to bring to their attention a man sleeping rough on North Road. It doesn’t take any time at all and it has the potential to have a large impact on someone’s life.
StreetLink operate all over the country, so you can ring them if you see anyone sleeping homeless wherever you are.
There are many things we should not be a bystander to. Homelessness is one of them. Whether this be at Christmas or any other time of the year. Now of course the government should be doing more, but we should too.
If we have time to complain about the cold, (as we all do), then we have time to ring StreetLink. My existential crisis had been thrown somewhat into perspective.
Illustration by Faye Chua