Home Street Home.
By: Paul Fitz
Being killed with kindness?
Following the deaths of at least 4 people in a short period of time during early 2016, it seems unfathomable that a tragedy such as this could take place in the 21st century, in such a civilized and loving city.
The real tragedy transpired that the street sleepers actually had the option of accommodation/shelter but chose to stay outside – they chose to stay outside in the middle of winter and to sleep rough on the streets. Why would somebody make a decision like this?
One effect/symptom/behaviour of street sleepers is many develop what we have identified and we call it SECONDARY GAIN.
Many street sleepers develop an effect/symptom/behaviour that we have identified and call ‘Secondary Gain’ – or Learned Helplessness.
Allow me to set the scene: You’re sitting in a doorway and an office worker drops a few quid into your cup, this happens for a number of hours until the peak foot traffic period is over, through the rest of the evening there are volunteers coming around and providing you with hot drinks, food, sleeping bags, clothing etc.
Then the pubs empty and you might have people buying you McDonalds and putting some more money in your cup, the quantity of course depends on their level of intoxication.
Now let’s change the scenario: You’ve been given accommodation, what happens at 4:30pm? Where’s the office worker dropping money into your hands? Who knows your door and gives you money? At dinner time, who’s coming around to your home and handing you a meal, a coffee, some clothes – where is this need being filled from?
You now have to look after yourself. Who has prepared you for this? The price a rough sleeper pays for the support they receive is no roof over their head. We’re all familiar with the phrase the nanny state, through no fault or malevolence of their own, is the charity/volunteer sector providing the mummy effect here? To the point that their children don’t want to end up having to fend for themselves?
With this in mind, the common call of ‘open up empty buildings’, would that still work?
Empathy with street sleepers is at a high, this is mainly to do with the recession and that many people are grateful to actually have a home – all of us are all too aware that house possessions have been on the increase. The fear of unemployment, redundancy and job insecurity is all too real and the possibility of facing homelessness themselves is not out of the question – the phrase ‘negative equity’ is perhaps the class shibboleth of our current generation.
With Northern Ireland having the highest percentage of property repossessions in the UK, confidence in the NI court system has recently been undermined by various court actions against whistleblowers who have tried to show the weakness and bias within the court system – favouring the banks over the people is the reality. Who can we trust or turn to? BBC Spotlight recently highlighted this with their NAMA investigation which appeared to show some solicitors and politicians who were heavily involved in banking decisions that perhaps wasn’t in the best interests of the people.
Do real street sleepers suffer from Psycho-social stress? Psycho-social stress is the result of a cognitive appraisal of what is at stake and what can be done about it. More simply put, psycho-social stress results when we look at a perceived threat in our lives (real or even imagined), and discern that it may require resources we don't have. Examples of psycho-social stress include things like a threat to our social status, social esteem, respect, and/or acceptance within a group; threat to our self-worth; or a threat that we feel we have no control over. All of these threats can lead to a stress response in the body.
When psychosocial stress triggers a stress response, the body releases a group of stress hormones including cortisol, epinephrine (or adrenalin) and dopamine, which lead to a burst of energy as well as other changes in the body. The changes brought about by stress hormones can be helpful in the short term, but can be damaging in the long run. For example, cortisol can improve the body’s functioning by increasing available energy (so that fighting or fleeing is more possible although some choose the freeze response), but can lead to suppression of the immune system (does this contribute to the shortened life expectancy of street sleepers?) as well as a host of other effects. Epinephrine can also mobilize energy, but create negative psychological and physical outcomes with prolonged exposure. That's why it's important to manage psychosocial stress in our lives so that the stress response is only triggered when necessary. It's also important to learn stress relief techniques to effectively reverse the stress response so we don't experience prolonged states of stress, or chronic stress.
During ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, psycho-social stress was very evident. People in their own homes simply did not feel safe. This led to a state of mistrust within and communities became very suspicious of strangers and acted accordingly. The tension was in the air, as it were, it seemed to lift when members of these same communities visited other places on holiday for example only to reappear on their return home. This led to increased levels of medication and indeed self-medication through the abuse of substances such as alcohol, drugs and food in both communities in quantities hitherto unknown. In many cases the church, even though it could have been seen as a divisive factor, was a welcome refuge for many. In some communities is this tension being expressed towards foreign nationals who are trying to integrate into Northern Ireland?
Street sleepers are also being taken advantage of by the sudden rise of career beggars, people who imply or pretend to be homeless and in need of goodwill & assistance. This practice is perhaps being encouraged by the public empathy towards genuine street sleepers. The people who choose to be career beggars enjoy the benefit of public goodwill towards homeless people and the donations the public provide to individuals.
Are career beggars clouding and distorting the real problem of street sleepers?
How can we help and protect the people who need it the most?
How do we support the homeless with the long term help they really need?
How do we think in new ways to offer our homeless people effective help?
Should we respect their decision to street sleep and not interfere, all because it's not our normality?
Should councils consider multi-purpose street furniture?
Who is really dealing with the situation and can the various bodies amalgamate to produce a more rounded service?
How do we recognize that the world especially the street sleepers world is a much better place due to the support volunteers who provide around the clock care which is ultimately life-saving.