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Anyone who takes even the vaguest interest in their surroundings knows that the situation concerning street-homelessness in Exeter is dire. Buying food for the homeless in town this past week cost me £26. The cost is budgeted and – of no material inconvenience to me – a generosity almost mandatory, borne out of my enormous socioeconomic privilege. The average last-minute takeout costs two to three meal deals. If you have the means to help, then by all means: use them.

Allegedly, rough sleepers in Exeter have recently been catching and eating pigeons. Quoted in an article by the Telegraph, (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/12/coo-dunnit-police-probe-reports-blatant-pigeon-eating-town-centre/) one trader said: “I was horrified. I know there are too many pigeons and I’ve never been a fan, but how can you be so cruel to an animal?” Because you are materially unable to be your best self, one would respond. Out of your mind with despair (approximately 70% of rough sleepers suffer from mental health issues), plagued to your nerve endings by self-voiding boredom (varied experience is a luxury of the comfortable), and continually subject to the nauseating needs of dependency (60% suffer substance-dependence). No doubt the trader quoted eats turkey for Christmas.

What is productive is a relentless effort to humanise the street-homeless

But contempt for the un-empathic is not productive (though such a comment does deserve a little roasting, for the general social good). What is productive, though, is a relentless effort to humanise the street-homeless. An anguish most commonly reported by rough sleepers is a feeling of total social isolation; an imperishable loneliness that envelops the mind as the cold permeates the skin.

When others acknowledge us we are affirmed

By nature, humans are deeply social beings. Likely everyone reading this is guilty (I certainly am) of, at least once, looking straight and strangely ahead as you approach a rough sleeper, of staring into the middle-distance in an attempt to cancel the responsibility of meeting their eyes, the awkwardness of denying them your loose change. Homeless people I have spoken to say they note especially those who, by curious unconscious compulsions, drift a wide berth as they pass by. When others acknowledge us we are affirmed. This is (literally) only natural. To be denied existence day after day does your internal life grievous harm. 68% of rough sleepers have self-harmed. In the last resort, pain confirms existence (‘pinch yourself to check that you are awake’) and, it becomes something to do.

Those who say that poverty is a state of mind do so from the easy seclusion of material superfluity

72% of rough sleepers are forced onto the streets following a relationship breakdown. I spoke to a chartered accountant who, after a short chain of events, had become homeless. His marriage had ended badly and his wife summarily divorced him. Unstable in his mental health, he lost custody of his children. Then, overwhelmed by a new, more repulsive depression, he turned to heavy substance-abuse as a coping mechanism. Rapidly he tore through his savings and, unable to pay rent and with no-one to turn to (the welfare state is not generous to the single homeless, particularly males), was forced onto the streets.

Anyone can become a rough sleeper. Those who say that poverty is a state of mind, the result of a string of ‘poor life-decisions’, do so from the easy seclusion of material superfluity, failing in the first instance their empathic duty.

As a general rule, one should not give money to rough sleepers. Research has been conducted on this and, for the most part, it only enables the cycle of substance-abuse and street-homelessness. Instead, offer fresh food, old books. And chat! The act of giving food and talking for a while can seem a tremendous kindness. Ask them their name and take note of their appearance. Then, to help further still, register them on Exeter’s StreetLink (http://www.streetlink.org.uk/tell-us-about-a-rough-sleeper). Logging rough sleepers on StreetLink enables the council to better identify and then verify them. Once a rough sleeper is verified, they can be legally afforded certain more permanent help from local authorities and charities: assistance with mental health, help finding temporary accommodation, assistance job-seeking and so forth until, at last, hopefully, independence.

If you would like the opportunity to volunteer your time to help feed rough sleepers in Exeter, click here: https://stpetrocks.org.uk/menu-text-how-you-can-help/volunteer/.

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