How to Treat the Homeless: Tips from Actual Homeless People

In order to demystify the all-too-common experience of being without a roof over your head, we asked some of London's homeless people about their day-to-day lives.

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May 6 2015, 3:55pm

Photo by Chris Bethell

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Some people can be incredibly, inexplicably nasty to rough sleepers. "Can't get a job, mate?" they laugh, at 4 AM, 11 rum-and-cokes deep, skirts tucked deep into their going-out pants. "Have to pitch up in the street, do you? I tell you what I'm going to do: I'm going to kick your shins and rip your sleeping bag away because that'll be a proper fucking laugh."

Clearly, however, it is not a laugh. It's also not how you should treat any human being, regardless of whether or not they live in a house. Unfortunately, some people clearly haven't grasped the very basic tenets of not being horrible, because, depressingly, this kind of thing does actually happen semi-regularly up and down the UK.

Mind you, the majority of us don't behave like that. The majority of us are split into two distinct camps: those who normally give some change if they're asked, and those who don't because they assume that literally anyone sleeping on the street is trying to trick them into handing over their hard-earned coppers by lying about needing a sandwich, when really they're definitely, 100 percent always going to use it to buy crack cocaine.

Again, there are some very obvious problems going on there. Some problems that could do with remedying. So in a bid to do that we asked a number of London's rough sleepers to pass on some pointers. (While it's quite a bleak indictment of humanity that such a guide needs to exist, it's probably clear from this first point that it very much does.)

Photo by Chris Bethell

DON'T PISS ON PEOPLE

You'd have thought it would be quite an obvious one, this, but it's something that came up several times.

"The nights are the worst times," says Ed, known locally as Mr. God Bless because he offers a "God bless" to every pedestrian who passes him by. "Sleeping isn't safe—people get attacked, urinated on, spat at... and all the streets are the private property of the council, so you might get asked to move on and carry all your stuff away at 2, 3, or 4 AM."

It takes a unique type of scumbag to piss on a homeless person, but it happens. "I've had a few drunk people who think it's funny," says Stephen, a former public schoolboy who bravely perseveres living on the outskirts of the West End. The problems, he says, arise mainly from men on nights out together, running on triple shots and testosterone.

"People reckon that I do my business round here, so they think it's OK to join in," says David, a rough sleeper who's based near Embankment.

In a recent report, the homelessness charity Crisis revealed that two-thirds of homeless people have been abused publicly while sleeping rough, and one tenth have been pissed on. "People who are abusive are cowards," says Ed, "and they usually surround themselves with a few mates. But 99 percent of my interactions are friendly or, at worst, them ignoring me."

REMEMBER THAT YOU TAKE CERTAIN THINGS FOR GRANTED

"This year alone I've ripped my glute," says Ed, pointing to his ass. "And I slipped on a banana skin—would you believe it—and had to have surgery on my knee."

Unless you have a marathon or a day at the beach with your child to get out of, injuries like this aren't exactly welcome, no matter your circumstances. But, as is pointed out to me, they're considerably harder to deal with when you constantly have to lug all your worldly possessions around with you.

Another thing to contend with when you have no roof or walls to call your own is the British winter. "It's fucking cold," says David. "If I can't get into a hostel or one of the shelters, I'd rather be up on my feet at night."

David has been through many of London's shelters and accommodation services, the cost of which comes straight out of his benefits. Others, like Ed, don't claim benefits, instead relying on the money they can get from passersby. A good day might contribute £40 [$60] towards a night in a hostel; a bad day means a few hours kip wherever's dry.

GETTING MONEY IS A PSYCHOLOGICAL GAME

We live in a world where who you buy your car insurance from can be swayed by your preference of meerkats over men pretending to be opera singers. Marketing works on us when we're being asked to hand over large amounts of money, so it makes sense to employ it to convince us to donate small amounts.

"This is my camera," says Stephen. "I like to ask Japanese tourists for a photo."

Stephen is set up with a pair of drums outside Marble Arch, where a constant stream of tourists flows onto Oxford Street. I take over the drumming for a few minutes so he can grab a photo with two peace-sign-waving teenagers. His ad hoc photo business seems a nice little gimmick, except for the fact he has no means of printing or distributing the photos. "The photos are just for me," he adds, "but it's also a good way to get friendly with people."

Ed's strategy is simpler: "I say 'God bless' to everyone who comes past, and eventually you become acquaintances." Just after he says this, he blesses a woman and her young scootering daughter. "I like your helmet," he says, "I like your rosaries!" the mother replies in a thick Irish accent. No money changes hands, but there's every chance they'll return after their shop.

GO TO RICH AREAS IF YOU WANT TO DONATE MONEY

The word "homeless" is misleading, as it suggests that these are people without a home. Without a house, perhaps, but not a home. "I'm registered to vote here," says David of his plot near the river. "I know the area better than you or the people who live in those flats."

David is one of over 6,500 rough sleepers in London, and, like a high proportion of them, sticks to the more affluent areas during the day. Tourists—who are more inclined to carry large wads of cash and can misunderstand the value of our funny, colorful money—are the most valuable punters.

"You get hundreds of Asians and Germans coming through every day. That's why I stick to my patch outside McDonald's," says David.

Related: Watch our film about the housing crisis, 'Regeneration Game'

INTERACTIONS ARE GOOD FOR EVERYONE

"For some of the old ladies, I'm the only interaction they'll have all day," says Mr. God Bless. "So I'm positive with them and I get a positive reaction back."

Ed's positivity means he offers hundreds of greetings every day, even when people ignore or avoid him. "We've got very frightened of social interactions," he says, "unless they're with a smartphone."

Pretending not to notice that you're being asked for money is common, because it's a lot easier than awkwardly stammering, "Sorry-I've-only-got-a-card," with your eyes fixed to your laces. But you don't need to. "A smile or a nod of a head—that's all really nice to receive," says Ed, pointing out that simple human contact is a kind of currency in itself. "All I can give in return is a 'God bless,' so that's what I do."

NOT ALL HOMELESS PEOPLE ARE THE SAME

Again, you'd have thought most rational Brits would realize this, as—like any single human—homeless people vary from person to person. However, it appears that a lot of us don't, and it's this kind of attitude that leads to prejudice, generalizations, and unkindness.

Stephen is an alcoholic who drinks a homemade cider (which, having tasted it, definitely doesn't involve any apples). Ed has struggled with substance abuse and became homeless after his partner of 12 years died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 2013. David doesn't like to talk about his past.

In order to avoid incurring problems with the local police, they all avoid asking too explicitly for money, but each has his own unique methods. "Good afternoon, officers!" Ed calls to two police officers while we chat. "I've got a good relationship with the local PCSOs because I don't beg; I just say God bless."

Others are spot beggars, the type who come up to you and ask for change for a bus, or a hostel, or a bag of chips. Ed warns me not to speak to them, while David calls them "not so friendly," which seems a bit of a euphemism. "I can understand people avoiding beggars," says David, "but they don't have to be rude. I hear a lot of offensive stuff being thrown around."

"You've just got to try to make people aware of why you got out here," says Ed, peeling a caramel trifle that a woman has just given him, "I've got a degree in psychology, so I'm good at working people out. You've got to do that so that they can understand. When they see what I've gone through, people often ask me, 'How did you survive it?' But, put simply, you've got to."

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