Homelessness is a rampant problem, worsening throughout the UK. In prevalent cities such as Edinburgh there are an estimated 11,800 people living in unsuitable accommodation, hostels or on the streets. This hidden community has been stigmatised and marginalised through government austerity measures so that even hardworking citizens often cannot afford to survive. This is an unacceptable social catastrophe in a country whose nominal GDP ranks 5th in the world.
The Sleep in the Park charity fundraiser organised by Social Bite is one of a chain of sleep outs to raise awareness and money for tackling homelessness. It is scheduled for December 9, during the bitter Scottish winter and aims eradicate homelessness in Scotland for good. This is an incredible aim, if a smidge utopian, but the fundraiser has sufficient research, money and attention to make a huge difference.
However, the event’s strategy is fundamentally disturbing. An image comes to mind of rows of middle class do-gooders wrapped in multiple blankets and sleeping bags, drinking hot wine whilst watching Liam Gallagher prance around on stage and John Cleese read a bedtime story.
Security guards stroll the perimeter whilst someone complains off-hand about the cold or damp. It sounds like a festival where everyone forgot to bring their tents. It’s all fun and games unless people start thinking this experience is reflective of the lives of the homeless community. The worst that can happen to a participant is a bad night’s sleep and a runny nose.
This compared to the unbearable cold, hunger and misery experienced by the dislocated thousands in their day to day life. Sleep outs are an outdated method, trivialising the reality of people’s lives and disrespecting those with no other choice. Furthermore, no homeless people will participate in the event, which only acts to ostracise them further. This method is both unnecessary and disrespectful.
Sleeping out to raise money reinforces the misinformed belief that homelessness is simply about sleeping rough. This is the visible side to the hidden world of the marginalised, and only touches on one aspect of the reality. Many homeless people don’t sleep on the streets, as figures from the Heriot Watt University crisis report found only 800 of the 11,800 Scottish homeless slept rough, with thousands in unsuitable temporary accommodation, sofa-surfing or living in hostels.
Temporary housing situations are generally unregulated, with the conditions dependent on the whims of the owner. Most have little choice but to stay in whatever accommodation is given to them, with any attempt to leave endangering their access to housing allowance.
Sexual violence, drug abuse and exploitation by landlords are rampant and the life expectancy of an average person during a period of homelessness is estimated to decrease from 81 to 47 years.
The loss of dignity and control, coupled with severely increased dangers is the real homeless experience. The visibility of rough sleepers who we pass on the street everyday are only the beginning of the soul-destroying reality that is hidden all around us. Continued charity fundraisers emphasising the importance of getting people off the streets and into housing over winter are wonderful and should be supported wholeheartedly; the sleep out, however, is not necessary.
This symbolically erasive form of quasi-solidarity is not an effective way of increasing empathy or awareness and should not be used lightly. This is not an attack on the individual’s morality but a deep systemic failing in the use of solidarity as a tool which both belittles and simplifies a problem which is much larger than individual acts of goodwill.
Experience of a disadvantaged situation is not needed for compassion. It is time we stopped trivialising the reality and used different methods for change.
Image: Craig McEwan