As I’ve worked in Soho for around 9 months, and my time in this unique/weird/vibrant place is coming to an end, I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on some of the things that I’ve learned whilst spending a lot of my time here that go beyond my job.
Everyday my train arrives into Victoria at around 8.30am. I then hop on a bus and make my way through some of the wealthiest parts of London; Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, Green Park, Bond Street, Regent Street… and so on, to get to Soho. It’s magnificent. Every day I get to stare out of the bus window at some of the finest and elegant examples of English architecture.
In contrast to the gold-plated coves, steep steps and decorative doorways, the dusty floors are scattered with people sleeping rough.
The lives of the people that make up London’s homeless community represent a blunt reminder for me every single day that homelessness is worryingly pertinent in today’s world. The topic of sleeping rough has shot up in the media over the past year or so. News articles, documentaries, interviews etc. You’d think this would indicate things are getting better due to the exposure, wouldn’t you? However, since 2010 sleeping rough statistics have doubled. And I can vouch that a day hasn’t gone by whilst commuting into Soho that I haven’t felt a heavy heart walking past several people in sleeping bags on the streets.
It’s just beyond bizarre. I work for a digital agency that thrive from the fast-paced exciting advancements in tech, like Google Assistant making real life phone calls for hair appointments. Yes, a robot talking back and forth with a person. But we can’t abolish homelessness and get these real-life humans (with feelings, emotions, aches, pains etc.) off the streets and into safe spaces?
The stark reality when I started working in this contrasting area of Soho created a bitter-sweet/love-hate feeling for me. I absolutely adored exploring and finding hidden gem restaurants and bars in the evenings and knowing that this space around me was filled with awesome innovative agencies that are changing the world. But knew deep down underneath the fashionable and cool exterior was the sad and harrowing reality of human suffering all around us.
So what do I do with this realisation? How did I go about doing my bit to help the homeless people of Soho? I spent months deciding how best to utilise what I had and what I could offer to help those in need. As such, I compiled a list of small things I could do to (hopefully) make life a little brighter for them.
Homeless people are people. They have feelings, they have emotions, they suffer. They have good days, they have bad days. Something I have been guilty of in the past is emotionally detaching myself from the reality of homelessness. The truth is, I’d walk past homeless people and pretend they weren’t there. I’d hurry past awkwardly.
Mentally refusing to acknowledge the existence of another member of society, who is quite clearly suffering, has been one the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. Qualities such as empathy, kindness and gratitude are free. Quite simply, a smile is free. Let’s not spare them for a select few.
An inspirational and beautifully empathetic colleague of mine, Teo, wrote a fantastic article about her research and experience with homelessness. You can check it out here.
My decision to donate to Crisis quite simply came about after I experienced taking the homeless crisis into my own hands.
I enjoy spending my lunch breaks walking around Soho. I have an office job, so I like to take any opportunity to walk around and stretch my legs. I also work in a basement, so my body is constantly craving natural light.
Over Christmas it was a bit of a catch 22, do I go outside to stretch my legs? Or stay inside in the warm? We had quite a lot of snow and ice last Winter (for England!) so when I decided to head out in the cold I’d wrap up extra warm.
One freezing cold Wednesday I was walking fast, shivering and clutching my coat and scarf around my face and neck trying to keep warm. I noticed a homeless lady, shivering and crying, begging for money. A smile wouldn’t cut it this time. I had to do something.
I took off my scarf, bent down and wrapped it around her shivering body. I didn’t want to make her feel like she owed me any kind of conversation, so I read her body language and walked away.
Later that day, after work, I was walking home and noticed her sitting in the same spot. This time, she was not wearing the scarf I gave her. It was nowhere to be seen. She was crying, shivering and begging for money. I felt strange. I felt confused. Where was my scarf? Did she not like it? Surely she needed it? Why is she still crying?
I felt an overwhelming sense of my HSP coming out. I felt like crying! Damn, I just tried to take this into my own hands. I tried to be empathetic and kind.
As I posted my confused thoughts on an instastory, I received a message from a close friend who told me that she found the best way to help (without taking homelessness into her own hands) was to donate to Crisis. This gives her the fulfilment that she’s doing her bit, but ensuring it’s left to the professionals to do the right thing with her money. It made complete sense to me…
Last year Crisis helped more than 11,000 people on their journey out of homelessness which is incredible. I’m supporting as much as I can to help increase that number in 2018.
Should we give money to homeless people?
There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding giving money directly to homeless people. When I was younger I was taught: “if you see a homeless person, buy them a sandwich and a bottle of water. Do not give them money. They’ll only spend it on alcohol and drugs.”
Were you told that as well?
After seeing these individuals, all different with their own stories of why they became homeless, I figured that that was a very shameful and unkind attitude.
People are homeless for lots of reasons – escaping domestic violence or sexual abuse, loss of a job and a partner often at the same time, leaving the care system with scant resources and being severely mentally ill – to name a few. These lives are improved by systemic government and charity funded support and psychological care, not loose change.
Given the fact that sitting on the ground and humiliating themselves daily in front of thousands of strangers is quite clearly soul-destroying enough, can we at least be kind and generous enough to allow them to spend the money we give to them as they wish? Who are we to dictate what it goes on?
To conclude, I truly didn’t expect to be so emotionally and physically drained by the exposure of homelessness around me. Of course I knew it existed, but I was too naive and uneducated on the topic to understand the severity.
The aim for my blog is to be used as a platform to express positivity and radiate optimistic and encouraging thoughts. But I felt this is an important and emotional topic that’s deserving of so much more than a silly little blog post. If you want to reach out to me to discuss further, or give me your tips and advice on how you do your bit, please feel free to get in touch!