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Time to stop calling it homelessness?

THE story of the late Sharron Maasz, which you can read here, is a tragic one.

She was an outreach worker for the homeless population of Oxford, before becoming homeless herself, succumbing to drug addiction and dying in a shelter-cum-group home.

Out of Oxford’s 90-odd homeless people, Sharron is one of six to have died recently.

For those of us who never encounter homelessness or the homeless, the Guardian journalists Simon Hattenstone and Daniel Lavelle deserve praise for humanising those who huddle in doorways at night while the rest of us crank up the central heating.

Lord knows, humanity is in short supply these days.

On that level, the article warrants praise, as it does for highlighting the alarming rise in homelessness over the past few years in one of the UK’s most prosperous cities.

That’s a university town where, you may be horrified to learn, some of the nation’s future elite are not averse to urinating on those at the opposite end of the social spectrum.

In short, the article is well worth a read, yet it left me with a conflicted feeling that I’m not sure how to resolve.

The tone of the piece, and many, if not all, of those quoted, points a finger of blame everywhere except at the poor woman who died.

Both austerity and the local authority are blamed for allowing, or failing to cure, Sharron’s homelessness.

Yet it is not until the end - as Oxford City Council points out in a statement - that we learn that Sharron actually was housed.

That is to say, she had a bedroom, a roof over her head, heating, and access to bathroom and cooking facilities.

Homelessness, as such, wasn’t her problem. Postmortem tests showed her body contained a cocktail of drugs - heroin, cocaine and methadone - and was in a state of general drug-related ill health.

I’m no fan of the powers-that-be, or austerity, but the government didn’t do that to Sharron, nor did Oxford City Council.

It is overwhelmingly true that for people made vulnerable by mental health problems, domestic abuse or financial hardship, public spending cutbacks make it harder for those affected to reach out for help, and for society to reach back.

Hence, I suppose, the worsening data.

Yet the article also juxtaposes the story of one of Sharron’s friends, Monica Gregory, who had a similarly dreadful litany of life experiences prior to homelessness, yet who never became addicted to drugs, never lost her children, and turned her life around.

Absent from all of this reporting, though evident between the lines, is the notion that those who find themselves at the “bottom of the barrel” had anything to do with it or have the power to change it.

That’s the conflict. Our empathy for the vulnerable should be immense, and our help for those who reach out unconditional, but where in this reporting is the sense that we are responsible for ourselves?

While campaigning for better safety netting - which I applaud - where is the campaign imploring people to make better decisions? As individuals are we not ultimately responsible for our own interests? How much blame should the state take for the deaths of Sharron and those like her?

In my day job, I meet and try to help homeless people on a daily basis, so I’m not speaking as an armchair warrior.

And the problem with helping those people is that when someone is under the dark spell of heroin, crack cocaine, alcohol, etc, those drugs are quite often literally more important to the addict than life itself. For those who want to help, that’s a conundrum.

It’s also a dark place to be, and we mustn’t - and don’t - abandon people in that position.

But at the same time, these are people who are incredibly difficult to help. They often don’t respond to reason as you and I know it.

When we talk about homelessness, we are, for the most part, not talking about otherwise well-adjusted people who have simply lost their jobs, been evicted and can’t find a new house, or even simply “people who sleep in doorways”.

The truth is that as the article (or rather, Oxford City Council) eventually points out, most people in Sharron’s position in Oxford have complex problems, are actually housed - albeit in less than ideal conditions - and are already intensive users of public services.

Simply putting roofs over their heads does not solve their complex problems. Most of the homeless people in Oxford who have died prematurely of late, actually had roofs over their heads but continued living chaotic and life-shortening lifestyles.

At the end of the day, the only people who can truly, meaningfully help are the people affected, which isn’t fair, because child abuse isn’t fair, PTSD isn’t fair, bad parenting isn’t fair, criminalising health problems isn’t fair, and domestic violence isn’t fair.

None of it is fair.

Yet human agency is absent from much of the reporting of this issue - especially in The Guardian - and that’s the conflict I referred to above. It's a criticism of the newspaper, rather than the people in the story.

But perhaps I’ve just led myself to the answer.

Helping the homeless is extraordinarily difficult, and for those who often show no interest in helping themselves, almost impossible.

That’s because ‘homelessness’ is a health problem, not a housing problem, to the extent that perhaps we should stop calling it homelessness.

We should, of course, maintain empathy and outreached hands towards those less fortunate, but perhaps addressing all of those other issues - violence, abuse and, above all, mental health - would go further by preventing 'homelessness' in the first place.

And that will cost money.

Oh dear. Perhaps I agree with The Guardian after all.


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