One of the big problems with how institutional charity has replaced human solidarity towards the homeless is that it frequently excludes people actually needing help from the conversation – a phenomenon which was brought home yesterday to Freedom Press author Andrew Fraser.
Andrew, whose precarious position has seen him move intermittently from rough sleeping to hostel to shared accommodation depending on his fortunes, published Invisible: Diary of a Rough Sleeper with Freedom at the end of last year.
As a small volunteer-run publisher with limited reach we tend to do short runs as standard and don’t make huge sums at the best of times (we just about broke even on Invisible), so while Andrew did get an advance it wasn’t a big sum, and his main means of making money from it is to sell books himself.
He’s gotten pretty good, and when funds run low he’s often out and about at fundraising events or awareness raisers, talking about his time on the streets and offering direct feedback to the well-meaning about how rough sleepers are actually affected by the various ways in which they experience charity, solidarity and repression.
On Friday night however a slightly different aspect of how charity can act to deliberately exclude those it’s supposedly helping was brought home when he was turned away from an event being held tonight in Whitechapel, the Celtic Sleepout.
Active in Glasgow and London for the last five years, the event aims to raise cash for the Celtic FC Foundation. Despite using the sleep out name however, with all its connotations of support for the homeless, when Andrew asked about going to the ticketed event he was told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome. Writing in his blog yesterday Andrew explained:
Don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Just contacted Celtic FC regarding a corporate charity fundraiser ‘sleepout’ they’re doing in Whitechapel tomorrow. You know the ones where they’re in an enclosed space with loos and security guards.
Thought I might be allowed to attend to sell a few copies of my book to raise funds for my homeless mates who I helped get and keep off the streets.
The woman I spoke to told me I’d have to pay over £100 to attend.
I explained that might somewhat defeat the purpose of me being there.
She replied that “you’re not even homeless.” I said, “I am, just not sleeping rough for now. But perhaps I could give some tips to your guests as they bravely spend a whole night in a railed children’s playground”.
No doubt bolstered by whiskey, security guards and hot water bottles. They’re a brave lot. But seeing as I did it without security guards, toilets and hot water bottles, I really hoped I might be able to help elucidate the experience of homelessness.
Well that’s the last time I attempt to make money by contacting a gigantic, rich people’s event. She asked me “do you have a license for peddling”?
Pedlars??!?? I didn’t even think that word existed anymore. Apparently it does in Glasgow. Well Pedlar Pride! I’ll just go out and sell them on the streets of London tomorrow.
If anyone knows of any event where people genuinely care, rather than are just in it for the kudos, let me know and I’d love to attend. Also weddings, funerals, bahmitzvahs … I always put on a good show.
Or you can PM me and I’ll get you a copy direct.
C’mon Partick Thistle!!!
This incident perfectly encapsulates a problem in the way that much of British society has become so hopelessly caught up in a model of “helping” the poor which involves just palming off money to distant professionals that, when confronted with actual poor people, the response is often panic, anger and rejection.
You can see it in the fury and disgust which froths in comment sections under news articles about homeless people, or in social media groups whenever the subject arises. There are constant accusations that people sitting soaking wet in the rain holding a coffee cup are actually housed and making huge sums of money, that it’s all scams, that it all just goes on drugs and booze (some might, who cares). Not a second of this fury would stand up to a proper conversation with most rough sleepers, whose difficulties are vividly displayed across every facet of how they hold themselves.
And a lot of this stems from the way in which we’ve long since offset care to an industry worth £77.4 billion, the grey-named Third Sector. The wealthy in particular are utterly alienated from and cosseted against want, and when they see it the situation seems incomprehensible, threatening, foreign. Is it any wonder then that councils introduce laws against begging under pressure from comfortably-off middle class whingers? That signs go up on public transport saying “don’t give to the poor, give to the middle man who can then decide, from behind a desk, who and what is best to spend it on”?
And is it a surprise when a “sleep out” charitable event with a £30 ticket price and additional £130 donor requirement turns away someone living right on the edge, who’s just trying to keep his head up, with a sneering line like “we don’t accept pedlars”?
It isn’t. But it should be.
This is the what dereliction of human contact in favour of process and institution breeds, a fear of what is made unknown through distance. As a species we have always been prone to fearing and hating what we do not know, from “that estate” to “they should speak English”. We end up with a situation where comfortable people “sleep out” in sanctums heavily guarded against the very people they are professing to care for, showcasing not solidarity but fear with a veneer of virtue.
Pic: Belgian milk pedlars, c. 1890-1900