Christa Ackroyd: Prince William may live in a palace but he can still feel for the homeless
It shames our nation and it is a scourge on our so-called civilised society. Well this month may just see the beginning of a conversation that we should have been having for years. And for that I am glad. Because something has to change.
It is five years ago since I became a Homeless Street Angel in Leeds. I seek neither applause nor a pat on the back. The reward of being part of an outreach far outweighs the few hours of my time each week and I am well aware there are many who do so much more than I. But of all the causes I have ever been involved in, it is the most life-enhancing, while at the same time the most heartbreaking .
Talk about making you count your blessings, of learning that a kind word costs nothing and there but for the grace of God go I. But trust me, sometimes it is soul- destroying to see people brought so low that not only do they have nothing, they come to believe they are worth nothing.
There is so much sadness to be witnessed in all our major cities. People, because that is who they are, real people who once had dreams and hopes and ambitions, sleep on pavements or in shop doorways, in tents, under bridges and in disused buildings, often hidden from view.
That is why we can never know the real number of those who have fallen under the radar with nowhere to go but onto the streets. We can give out blankets, food, clothes and hot drinks every week and beg for more but no matter how generous our donors, we know we are only just papering over the cracks, that for those who find somewhere to live, others will soon come to take their place.
Every week there are new faces. They often start with a sense of bravado, that they can cope, that they are tough and will survive. Especially the young ones. But before long we witness them shrinking not just visibly but mentally, before our eyes. And some are so young and so vulnerable. Most are boys and men but there are women and girls too. There are also those who have been there for years, whose only friends are those who live in the next sleeping bag.
We also know they are just the tip of the iceberg, that homelessness is more than just rough sleepers. More than a quarter of a million people are officially classed as homeless in this country, nearly half of them children. We don’t see most of them. They are invisible. They live in hostels or in temporary accommodation.
But that figure is still nowhere near the real picture. Another half a million people sleep on a sofa at a friend’s house until their host gets fed-up of their presence and they moveon. Again and again.
Eventually they too may end up joining those who live, if you can call it living, on the streets. Some haven’t eaten for days. Some refuse food because they simply can’t stomach it. Some are there because of drugs. Others because of debt or relationship breakdowns.
Some have fled abuse, sexual and physical. Some have been released from prison. Others deliberately commit crimes to end up back there with a roof over their heads and three square meals a day. Many have mental health issues. More than you can ever imagine are often verbally or physically attacked.
And trust me, when you sit beside a man who tells you that some yob set fire to his sleeping bag or urinated on him while he slept, youweep with them. Just as if I had a pound for every time I have heard the phrase “I bet most of them are not even homeless”, we would have enough sleeping bags to last us a year.
Homelessness is not just about providing four walls and saying “there you are, that’s one saved”. It is supporting them to stay there. And believing they can do it until they believe the same.
And yet I have faith that things may change if we, as society embrace, the fact we need to alter our attitude towards homelessness. And to do that we need a true champion, someone who can pull strings and have the ear of those who can make it happen.
Enter the Prince of Wales this week with a promise that by the end of the month he will be unveiling a five-year project which aims to put an end to homelessness. Not just tackle it but end it. What’s more he firmly believes the problem is “not unsurmountable”. A Utopian dream from a privileged prince with his houses and estates and country mansions with more than a few dozen spare rooms?
Yet reading Prince William’s words, I was struck by his sincerity and indeed his knowledge. But then here is a man who as a boy was taken incognito by his mother to visit those living on the streets of London. And he promises to do the same with his own children. He has already started the conversation with them.
He is a patron of both Centrepoint and Passage, two homeless charities, which saw him sleep out for a night to bring attention to the plight of rough sleepers. One night only it may have been, but he got the attention of the media and raised the profile of the issue. And I know that he gets it when he talks of buying food or a drink rather than throwing money in a cup because that way you are forced to make eye contact rather than just walk by.
The way he talks is the way we talk when he says everyone needs a clear pathway, an escape route to a stable life and a home that they can call their own. And it is music to my ears because he not only has the power to make people listen but, with his mental health charity, also realises people can’t make it on their own.
I don’t care that Prince William is as rich as rich can be. If a future monarch wants to put homelessness at the top of his agenda, that can only be a good thing.
Mahatma Gandhi once said the measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. And we can all of us treat those without a home and often without hope much better than we do at present.
And that stands true if you are a prince or someone who hasn’t even considered how a person lying on the ground wrapped in a blanket begging for food ended up there in the first place.
And more importantly how they get out of there for good.