Thursday, 26 November 2015

What about homeless people? Why don’t they get the open door policy?

You’ve seen the pictures right - in the UK and in the US people holding signs saying “I’d welcome a Syrian refugee” or “Refugees welcome at my house”. Very noble. And then of course you get people saying “What about the homeless people we already have? Why aren’t you opening your homes to them huh? HUH?”

Well let me break it down for you.
First, and this is very important, we can care about more than one issue at once. It isn’t caring about refugees OR homeless people. Amazingly, the vast majority of people have the capacity to care about both groups of people.

Secondly, the conversation we are having is about Syrian refugees. You want to have a conversation about homeless people then great, we should do that. We really should. But this conversation we are having right now, is about refugees from Syria and elsewhere. We are having this conversation right now for some good reasons. The movement of Syrian refugees has reached a critical level (in terms of numbers the UK and US media can’t ignore) and there have recently been a number of planes and boats arriving with the first large groups of officially recognised Syrian refugees. This was further brought in tot he spotlight by scaremongering following the attacks in Paris and how that might be related to a Syrian refugee or somebody posing as one. This conversation is about refugees, so the statements are about refugees.

The dialogue has been set up as thus:
Right Wing Media and Politicians: We don’t want these refugees. We can’t house these refugees. Do you want some foreigner living with you?!
Other People: Actually I care about these people and yes I would be willing to live side by side with them.

Right Wing Media and Politicians: Yeah but where are they going to sleep? There’s no space!
Other People: Looks them dead in the eye I will open my home up if necessary.
The rhetoric is all about “are refugees welcome Y/N” and people rising to that and being confident to make a direct statement to those who answer N and to challenge the people who keep trying to paint the public as uncaring and heartless.
The rhetoric is not a general “would you let random people into your house?” that’s a different conversation. Nor is it “do you care about homeless people?” that is also a different conversation.

Now lets look at the practicalities and to those people who are taking action - the actual appeals for housing and shelter and the people who are actually opening up their homes to refugees. You may so “well why now, why are they doing it for refugees and not homeless people?”
One reason is, as above, they haven’t been asked before. This is the first time that such things have been asked of them. The problem of homeless people is every present, a background noise to our existence. It isn’t treated as an urgent issue, it’s just something that is there, that we know about, that isn’t going anywhere. The problem of where do refugees sleep is an urgent question and one which is being asked loudly RIGHT NOW and people are responding.
The other reasons are more complex and they are to do with how charities are run and funded, and the legislation surrounding housing.
A lot of refugee aid charities are small grassroots group who have been set up in recent years. They have little by way of funding and resources but they are doing their best to help refugees and foreign nationals in their local community. They are the ones saying “these people need a bed for the night, can you help?” they don’t have hostels of their own. The issue is one of very short term housing, to fill in those gaps between passing from a detention centre and going into a hostel or longer term housing. There will be a bed available on Friday, but they have just been released from holding today, can you offer a bed for a night or two?
You are taking in somebody via a charity as a guest in to your home for a night or two. You won’t be paid, you may get some language or care support but really you are on your own. You register with the charity, pass their checks and then are on standby to receive somebody as and when.
Homeless charities by comparison, at least in the UK operate differently. They are often larger well established groups which work with local government and receive support and help from the council. UK councils usually have a mandate regarding how they handle homelessness in their municipality with established guidelines over how individuals are processed and treated. There is an emphasis on getting people into homes rather than hostels but these are often longer term solutions, not a night or two here and there. People who can open up their homes are doing so as a live in landlord, and must be registered as such, taking on the necessary legal stuff and contracts.
Theoretically you could just walk up to a homeless person rough sleeping and say “come home with me” but if you want to do it in any sort of regulated way or via a charity or placement scheme it is a more arduous task and requires real commitment from you.
To top it all off, because of how the media and government have chosen to frame the “problem” of homeless people over the past few decades (and I have that damned Phill Collins song in my head now) homeless people have been quite successfully othered. They are people with mental health problems, alcohol and drug issues, ner-do-wells, and people from troubled backgrounds. Rather than make us more empathetic those descriptions make it harder for a lot of people to be sympathetic - it is difficult for you to see yourself in their situation.
Refugees however, at least in recent months have been given a slightly better time of it. The social liberal media and social media has (thankfully) been reminding us that they are people just like us. People who lived normal lives, had jobs, had hobbies, friends and families until war and famine changed all that. It is easier to sympathise with them when we see them as like us and can imagine ourselves in their place.
It is far easier, therefore, for people to offer their homes to people they feel a kinship to than those they have repeatedly been told are trouble. To put it in cold hard marketing terms, it’s an easier sell.
Want to put your money home where you mouth is?
Look for charities like
Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network
in your local area and talk to them about what you can offer.

Volunteer with local charities which offer homeless support such as St George’s Crypt in Leeds or UK national charity Shelter.
Look at your local Council website for their resources and mandates regarding homelessness and consider registering as a live-in landlord and contacting the Council and local charities so they can put you on a list of people willing and able to take homeless people.
To summarise:
  • This conversation is about refugees so people are talking about refugees and not other groups in need.
  • People are making a statement to politicians and media they disagree with.
  • Refugee Charities have been making requests for bed spaces and people are responding.
  • Due to how they operate Homeless Charities are unable to make the same requests so people can’t respond.
  • It is easier in practical and legal terms to offer shelter to a refugee than a homeless person.
  • People connect more with refugees than with homeless people because of how they are currently described in the media.
  • You can care about more than one thing at once. Caring about refugees does not stop people caring about homelessness.
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