Artillery Row

They (often) don’t want help

Unless we accept uncomfortable truths, we will continue to see people die on the streets

Homelessness has always been a divisive and emotive issue. It is one that seems to send people rushing to either side of the ideological divide. The right often views it through the lens of supply-side economics — stressing the need to deregulate planning laws in order to build more affordable homes. Whilst those on the left tend to see it as the result of austerity and social spending cuts ushered in by the Conservatives. In truth, it is a little from column A and a little from column B. But whilst both sides of the debate throw moral missiles at each other, there’s a wider issue that’s being ignored. 

Last year 2688 people slept rough in England. The year before the number was 4,266. Although this represents a 37 per cent decrease, another number has gone up. Of the 976 homeless people who died on the streets in 2020 — 351 died of drug abuse. In 2019 the figure was 289. 

There are a number of reasons why an individual ends up sleeping rough. One of the most common is familial disorder. When mediation fails or they’ve been unable to get help with a difficult domestic set-up, some decide to leave home, choosing a life on the streets instead. With potentially years of built-up emotional trauma, many rough sleepers will feel the urge to take something to temporarily assuage the pain and loneliness. And this temptation lures around every street corner.

Needle exchange facilities have sent an unintended message that open-air intravenous drug use is acceptable

The streets are awash with substances to stupefy and satiate the needs of any user. Heroin, Crack and Methamphetamine are common. All are plentiful and more importantly for the user — cheap. Etizolam — a sedative not prescribed in this country and referred to as ’street Valium” — sells for as little as £1. But by far the biggest problem is a drug called spice. This is a synthetic cannabinoid designed to replicate the effect of cannabis, but is often sprayed with hazardous chemicals causing serious side effects for the user. 

In an effort to minimise the spread of blood borne infections, a number of cities have set up needle exchange facilities. This has unfortunately sent an unintended message to addicts that open-air intravenous drug use is acceptable and tolerated. This carefree attitude adopted by many homeless addicts has the potential to cause the public serious health problems. Step on a discarded needle or accidentally prick your finger and the risk of contamination is extremely high. Public Health England believes 90 per cent of all Hepatitis C infections come from intravenous drug users.

In order to fund an addiction, most homeless people resort to begging. I was told by numerous rough sleepers they could earn as much as £100 a day. Whilst some sit and innocently put their hand out, others take a more direct approach, intimidating and harassing the public until they part with money. Importuning passersby doesn’t just threaten the safety of the public, it can also jeopardise the safety of the beggar. There have been numerous reports of beggars being attacked and on occasion even killed. In my hometown of Norwich, a homeless man known as “old man Billy” was kicked to death outside a nightclub in 2011 — suffering a bleed to the brain. 

The police can only do so much. Under the Anti Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act of 2014, they have the power to issue dispersal orders to nuisance beggars. But all this means is that the person must vacate the area for 48 hours. After which period, they just return. This does little to address the problem. As one Policeman I spoke to told me, unless there’s more support for rough sleepers they are just “moving the problem around.”

Nearly all of the homeless people I spoke to said they slept rough of their own volition

In truth, the benevolence of the public combined with the vast array of cheap and easily accessible drugs keeps many homeless addicts in a state of perpetual dependency. Rather than give money, offer a homeless person some food. If they are in genuine need it’ll be accepted with alacrity. If you wish to help financially, donate the money to a homeless charity or organisation.

There is an uncomfortable truth to sleeping rough that many people unfortunately choose to dismiss. Nearly all of the homeless people I’ve spoken to and interviewed told me the decision to sleep rough was largely of their own volition. When it comes to the issue of getting clean, many told me they were offered help and support by numerous organisations but declined. When I mentioned this to one homeless outreach worker It was met with incredulity. I was told this was “absolute rubbish.” 

Those that sleep rough will find it very hard to work their way out. Finding employment will be extremely difficult — especially in a post-Covid world. An inveterate drug addict will struggle to hold down a job. The constant need to satiate an addiction in an attempt to stave off withdrawal is just not conducive to a functioning working environment.

One option being trialled is the “Housing-First” policy. A Conservative proposal that was adopted in their 2017 General Election manifesto. Working on the assumption that housing is a human right, it proposes that once housed, individuals with substance abuse issues will be better equipped to deal with their addiction and slowly reintegrate back into society. It is currently being trialled in three cities.  

I was told by numerous rough sleepers they could earn as much as £100 a day

Those that refuse to get help will only hurt themselves. According to official statistics men and women sleeping rough die 30 years younger than the national average — 44 and 42 respectively. If someone genuinely wants to leave the streets behind them, they need to meet counsellors and addiction specialists half way.  

More urgency combined with targeted financial support needs to be given to drug treatment facilities. In my local city there’s been an £8 million cut to drug and alcohol services. At the same time there’s been a 20 per cent rise in drug poisoning deaths in the city.

A tolerant and liberal society should do all it can to help everyone at their lowest point in life. Homeless people have rights like anyone else. But unless we accept some uncomfortable truths, we will continue to see people die on the streets.

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