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Photo Harry Tryphonos

Home-less: an essay by Harry Tryphonos

Harry Tryphonos wrote a previous article for HOT about homelessness. Here he explores this issue further, based on his experiences in Hastings. 

When I sat down in October last year to write an article about something local I had nothing specific in mind. Eventually I settled arbitrarily on writing about the homeless population in the area and found there was much to talk about. It’s not an issue that I’ve been personally affected by, nor has anybody close to me, but it is something that cannot fail to inspire empathy in anybody with open eyes.

I have no desire to be a spokesman for a group of people of which I am merely a casual observer, and I certainly have no interest in producing rhetorical articles with a view to guide readers towards a particular political party. I would, however, like to try and play a part in stimulating the conversation within our society on this subject (and others) so that we can look beyond trying to fit spherical problems in to square political manifestos, and start working towards our own ideals rather than choosing from the handful of half baked solutions which are put in front of us every few years.

I’m unsure whether writing the previous article has increased my awareness of the situation, or if the problem has genuinely gotten worse since it’s publication. I have certainly had a number of confrontations with the homeless community in that time, appealing to the whole range of human emotion, some of which I will touch upon here.

Most recently, I was walking through Hastings Old Town when I heard a man shout something to the effect of: “Well, it just winds me up…….he’s sitting out here freezing and we’re worrying about asylum seekers”, as he turned from the homeless man he had been sympathising with to his young son. I understand that there is an obligation for a country’s government to look after it’s own residents first, but at what point does one human being in trouble take precedence over another?

I wonder how effective the aforementioned man would be at condemning malnourished children from war-torn countries if they were eye to eye. Now that doesn’t necessarily comment on the homeless, but there is a wider point worth consideration. In an age where information is provided in headline form, there is a serious danger of making flash decisions without actually putting ourselves in to the shoes of those they effect.

Photo Harry Tryphonos

In the winter, I was drawn in to the type of conversation I try to avoid, not being inclined to defend my opinions. A local councillor broke the news that due to the temperature hitting zero degrees the Hastings Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (HSWEP) dictated that the council would provide emergency shelter for those forced to sleep rough. First I wondered why it had taken for the temperature to hit freezing point before shelter was offered. I was told by somebody that there is also the Snowflake shelter which runs every night from November to March. I replied, if the Snowflake shelter is effective then why is the HSWEP even necessary? Surely it outlines a flaw in the standard practice if homeless citizens are hoping for the temperatures to descend below freezing so that their representatives provide them a warm bed for the night. I wonder what is worse on a night where the predicted temperature was one degree Celsius, the act of sleeping rough, or the indignation at realising that the temperature has sunk below zero regardless of the forecast. I see now that Snowflake is a registered charity dependent on donations and volunteers, but I suppose our taxes are needed elsewhere.

“What about the rest of the year?” I asked. Does the infrastructure which is provided in these ‘emergency’ situations disappear throughout the warmer months? And I use the term warmer to mean the climate during an English spring. Or is it assumed that all homeless citizens spend their summers counting their lucky stars as if they were on a camping holiday they hoped would never end?

A man responded that many choose not to use the provided shelter because they do not wish to abide by the rules stipulated, giving the example of no drink or drugs being permitted on the premises. At this point I sank in to exasperated sarcasm, but I will try now to respond more eloquently. This seems to tie in with my earlier point. I don’t know whether the man in question had built this notion based entirely on the headlines about drug use in the homeless community, or perhaps he was or is a volunteer at one of these shelters and is far more qualified to pass comment than myself?

The question remains, could he look in to the eyes of a sickly human being in the depths of addiction and, as perhaps their final hope, condemn them back to the hell of street living and their illness. I am aware of the deceit and ugliness that comes with drugs, I’ve watched a kind man give a ten pound note to a homeless person I had heard asking their accomplice for heroin thirty seconds before, but if there are two excuses I would have to consider for such behaviour they would be the effects of mind altering drugs, and the innate struggle for survival in all living things.

In the past few months I have been accosted by men and women with eyes wide and unblinking, reciting lines for the hundredth time that hour, begging for change. I’ve witnessed men threaten to hit women in plain view of a shop full of people without interruption. I’ve been reassured by a homeless woman that it was cough syrup that she was drinking from a whiskey bottle, quickly stowed in a sleeping bag.

None of this unscrupulousness leads me to think that these people are beyond help or worthy of disdain, or deserve to live and sleep in the bitter cold which I can’t handle for five minutes. I would merely like the satisfaction of knowing that my descendants in generations to come will not be shunned for a string of mistakes or misfortunes, and that the right help will be in place for them. As things stand, we and our children are all one war, one wage packet, one death in the family from existing on the outskirts of the society created to support us and ensure our fair treatment.

Harry Tryphonos’s previous article: Humanising Homelessness

Posted 07:06 Friday, Apr 17, 2020 In: Hastings People

1 Comment

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  1. Kendal

    Good to see a sympathetic article on the homeless Harry. Your take highlights the existential differences and stigma connected with this subject. Skimming the surface is good if people get insight into the problems around provision, but it also risks imbedding this stigma amongst those that have never been forced into such protracted crisis. Often prolonged by abusive support strategies.

    I’ve been homeless twice and worked as a commissioned advocate for a homelessness support group for a northern council, (that was the biggest eye opener on institutional stigma and lack of real consideration for people’s potential, even from conscientious support staff), also as an independent trainer with all mental health front line services, charities and voluntary groups designing and delivering successful workshops for LCT PPI. Also with mutual support groups and a survivor’s poetry group.

    We are so fortunate here to have an open CAB and superb voluntary services including HARC and Health In Mind. When I first went to the Seaview project, I was impressed by the provision and spirit present in protecting and bolstering one another. The community spirit amongst the homeless here is constantly inspirational and I suspect a rare occurrence throughout the country – yet this again focuses only on the visible. The subtle institutional stigma I highlighted in two published books I encountered in MH trainees there and some leading practitioners working in Sussex Partnership. It’s a stigma of lack of ownership. It’s also a product of poor training predicated on spurious precepts. Progressive people within services almost always got bypassed or dismissed or left due to what is conceived by managers as rocking their sinking boat.

    With the precariousness of the economy and impact of Covid-19, “there but for the grace of good fortune go us all.” This is what should make addressing this subject a common agenda. You can never put someone in someone else’s shoes – but what you can do is get individuals to place their own shoes in those virtual circumstances.

    As always though, the last to be listened to are those suffering the issues

    Comment by Kendal — Thursday, Apr 23, 2020 @ 16:36

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