Friday, 3 February 2012

On Homelessness



Normally what happens here is I rant about shit and then, well, nobody reads it. That's fine and I don't intend to deviate too much from my intended plan, but today I'm not going to do that.

Today, I saw this video.



The point of this video is actually to illustrate the way changing the words of a message, whilst retaining the meaning, can make all the difference to the response you get. However, that is not the reason it moved me. What moved me was the fact that the man was blind.

Let me explain. My father-in-law* is a recovering alcoholic who suffers from COPD, a debilitating lung condition that requires him to have home oxygen. About 3 years ago, when he was still drinking, he went into a serious downward spiral of depression and became very ill. The COPD wasn't diagnosed then and he was still smoking and drinking a lot. He'd been a 'functioning alcoholic' for years, basically meaning that he had a job (as a truck driver) and never drank on the job but when he was at home, he drank heavily.

Anyway, he became more and more depressed and reclusive and stopped going to work because he was too ill and depressed. This went on and on and became more and more serious but he refused to let anyone help him. He started to suffer from agoraphobia and his ability to breath properly diminished very quickly until he couldn't go back to work, even if he had been in any state to do so. Eventually he had to be rushed to hospital and he came within hours of dying and it was only through luck, really, that he woke up when he did and started accepting treatment.

Once he came out of hospital, he was unable to work. My better half had been spending a lot of time talking to the CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau) about what benefits he was eligible for but it was a slow moving process and we had to lend him our savings so he didn't loose his flat.

The reason I'm telling you all this is because if he hadn't had his daughter to help him with the benefits office, he wouldn't have been able to do it himself. At the time, he could barely talk without becoming distressingly out of breath and, even if he could, he wasn't good at dealing with official things like that. He would have ended up homeless. He wouldn't have survived a week.

It really showed me how a lot of people end up on the streets. Take the blind man in the video above. I'm sure he's probably an actor or something, but let's assume he's a real guy, begging on the streets. People like him fall through the cracks of society all the time. If you haven't got someone who can fight your corner for you when you cannot do it for yourself, you will find that the system is biased against you at every turn. My father-in-law has had his benefits cut a couple of times because of screw ups in the benefits office and if we hadn't been there for him, he wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. He can't go to the office and talk to the people face to face. He can barely manage a phone call without getting flustered and out of breath! Any one of those benefits cuts would have put him on the street to die.

Watching the video above really fired my empathy circuits. My brain immediately started wondering how the man ended up on the streets, how we as a society let that happen. It also reminded me that this man could easily have been my father-in-law, a man I love dearly.

We all walk past homeless people on the streets and act like they're not there. I'm not going to try and act like I don't because I do. We also judge people. We think "It's their own fault! It's not my problem!" We walk on by and act like we never saw them in the first place. But that could be your friend or a family member who fell on hard times and somehow missed society's safety net on the way down. It could be you, one day.

I recently had a motorbike accident and broke my foot. Luckily, I have very understanding bosses and a job where I sit at a desk, so it was fine. However, if I had a manual labour job, the 7 weeks I was on crutches and the further month it took for me to walk properly again could have cost me my house. And that's in the UK, where the health care is free. Imagine if I lived in the US! The situation would be the same but I would also owe up to several thousand dollars in medical bills. It can happen that easily. One day, everything's fine and then something unexpected happens and your whole world can quickly fall to pieces.

Now, I don't advocate giving money to random beggars. It doesn't really help them and is advised against by charities like Shelter and The Big Issue. But that doesn't mean you should act like they simply don't exist! Instead of giving them money, buy them a sandwich or a coffee or simply talk to them like they're real people. If they're an official Big Issue seller, buy a copy. What my Mum does is gives them the money and refuses the magazine so they can sell it again.

I used to see the same homeless guy a lot of days in the city centre near where I live. One day, instead of walking past like he wasn't there, I stopped and talked with him. He didn't really elaborate on how he had come to be homeless but he was a nice guy and did say that he just wanted money to go to a place down the road so he could be warm and buy a coffee and some food. He was clearly sober and didn't even smell of booze, so I gave him some money and then I did something that I think he appreciated a lot more. I shook his hand. The look on his face will always stay with me. I could tell I was the first person in who knows how long who treated him like a human being instead of a piece of trash.

I will get back to the regularly scheduled rage when I next write, whenever that will be. Thanks for reading and always remember that even when a person falls on the hardest of times, they are still a person and should be treated as such.



*He's actually my future father-in-law, but for simplicity's sake, I'll just call him my father-in-law.

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