The Big Sleep 2019
Earlier this year I read again George Orwell's memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell's awareness of and desire to highlight social injustice led him on two journeys. In the book he records, first, his time taking work as a plongeur (busboy) in Paris taking casual, menial work in restaurant kitchens and living in squalid boarding houses. Later he writes from his experiences living as a tramp around southern England, describing some of the people he met on his travels and the basic accommodation, or lack of it, for those finding themselves homeless for different reasons.
For the old-Etonian, who had been brought up in a very different world, Orwell's experiences were radical. His longer-term seasons in different parts of society in no way compare to my single night sleeping out recently as part of the Seaview Project's Big Sleep on Hastings seafront. (The Seaview Project was a King's Church Hastings charity of the year a few years ago.)
While one night in a constricted cardboard box was not 'glamping' – and I did endure a little discomfort through the night – there was always going to be a quick end to my experience. In fact, if had I chosen to, I could have vacated the concrete floor of my shelter at any moment. Nevertheless, this experience reminded me of some previous conversations at the local Snowflake night shelter with those using the service.
For many who find themselves homeless, there can seem to be no obvious endpoint. Like Orwell (but to a significantly lesser degree) I chose to be in my box for that night. There may be exceptions – as there were in Orwell's time – but very few people would choose to 'live rough' for any time at all. Most people do not choose this way of life and being homeless for just a single night rarely happens. Few of the people you might see on the seafront or in a shop doorway do this out of choice, especially as the weather becomes bleaker. The night before the Big Sleep, Seaview outreach workers had counted 48 people on the streets of Hastings and more in the wider area.
The reasons people become homeless are many and varied. These may include relationship breakdown (including domestic abuse and violence), mental illness, addiction, release from prison, leaving the care system or financial problems. After becoming homeless, finding a way out is rarely straightforward – the complexities of the housing system, the lack of permanent housing and suitability of temporary accommodation present significant hurdles.
One thing we all need is hope. But many homeless people find themselves without hope, or the capacity to escape from their circumstances. I would also suggest that being cold, wet and hungry doesn't always make for clear decision-making, especially when you have to work out where you will find shelter for the coming night.
You may feel, like me, that nearly one hundred years after Orwell wrote, homelessness should no longer exist in the sixth largest economy in the world – but it does. More than that, you may also feel that homelessness in any society is an affront to God and the dignity of men and women made in His image. The Big Sleep does not solve the problem of homelessness, but the Seaview Project – which undertakes critical work with many on the margins of society – and our night shelters are worthy of our help and respect.
Ultimately, the issue is not that some people make mistakes in life or even how circumstances conspire to result in homelessness – the issue is how as a society, as individuals and as churches we react to give people hope. One final thought from someone who has no experience of homelessness – why not talk to someone on the street about their first-hand experience and then pray as to how you might be able to help in this area?