Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Homeless in London

      A lot of times, we end up talking about social class, income  inequality and gentrification, especially here in Seattle, where there are constant tech markets and others, popping up and literally no place to house them.
      I don't know if this is an observation of me being white, or disabled, or both, but I tend to get approached a lot by homeless people when I am out and about on the streets. And, as there are increasingly more of them, these interactions happen more and more.  I am not one to carry around physical cash, and so usually I don't have anything to offer people right away, but I often feel guilty. Perhaps it is this combined with my own desire to protect myself as an easy target while out alone.
     The thing about traveling to another country that is well-developed, a world power, and constantly being colonized or jostled around is that it is not much different in London. However, there is a different perspective somewhat on how they handle the homeless situation. And what study of contemporary British culture would be complete without putting this directly in front of your face?
 Or so said our Contemporary Britain professor for the seven years  leading up to that point.  He had met  a homeless woman and her dog in his travels, and every term thereafter, invited her to speak to his class about what it was like to be on the streets.  The difference is, that while here in the US, the laws about loitering and property damage, in Britain it is actually illegal to ask for money  on the streets  in any situation, as it is in most of Europe, and the police may repossess anything that they assumed to have been given to a person as any kind of donation. I remember this woman said that her biggest obstacle was that her dog, her only companion after leaving a long-term partner and before that a very violent situation, had a lot of health problems and was not allowed in any shelter or housing space. Rather than give up the dog, she put anything she was given first to her dog, and then to herself. As of this program, she had been  through a program aiming to clean up the streets for the 2012 London Olympics, almost without warning. She had tried to find employment in vain, despite being well-educated, because she didn't have an address, and then,  of course, there was the dog. She often talked about getting little sleep, and being awake before the police came to chase them away. She said that she had often slept in accessible bathrooms, which were usually locked somehow. I admit that this made my privileged self cringe a little, but it made a lot of sense, often they were the nicest and cleanest places in the area.
       The whole point of this is that, as I go about my daily errands, this could be the story of any one of the people here. Despite the difference in law to some extent, the same catch-22 exists. And,  the fact that, for job searching me, this could often be too close to reality to worry about other people. For years, I swore I would never give money to random people, instead choosing to volunteer my time in other ways where people can benefit, such as the food bank. But stories like that of this woman and her dog often make me wonder why I didn't offer to buy a cup of coffee  for that guy on the corner. While I may not have cash, in a few weeks when I have the means to do so, I will do something else. And for that, I thank her, and her dog too.

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