Survival is the most basic of human needs. Mikkel Juel Iversen is a film producer who runs a remarkable charity project, UnderOneSky which aims to support the homeless. He facilitated a very moving discussion at ConsciousCafe in London which was not just about being homeless but also about being human.
There are an estimated 8,000 people sleeping rough in London annually and many more who have no home but sleep as and where a friend or family can offer a bed. 85% of rough sleepers are men. And, in 2016, 270,000 people had a homelessness related case processed by their local council. For many of us, losing our home might be just one month and one pay-packet away.
90% of people who are sleeping rough have some form of mental health issue – including disorders which many of us will be familiar with such as depression, bi-polar or addiction. Aside from that, the message of the evening which came through loud and clear is that all of us are human beings. Homeless people are not ‘the other’. They are no different from any of us and are in that situation because of many different reasons which our society has been unable to help them with.
One of the group shared how she always carries some food – often fruit – to offer a homeless person when she is out and about. She likes to engage with people and will often speak with them. She might start the conversation by asking how they are, and then if they feel inclined to talk she will explore how they found themselves on the street and how they feel about that. One time she suggested a woman make contact with her father whom she had not seen for many years. Passing by a few weeks later, the woman told her she had been in touch with him and they were going to meet.
Sometimes a remark or a smile, nod or wink from a passing stranger can make all the different to a homeless person’s day.
Mikkel reminded us that everyone is an individual. Some days we want to talk to people and other days we don’t and so it is with all of us. If we walk with love, compassion and empathy, that is what we are bringing to the situation. If what we offer is not welcome, it is not about us.
Another group member shared that she had been homeless in her life. ‘It’s important for people who are homeless to know that they are not invisible’ she said.
Some of the people living on the streets have struggled with living in ‘chaotic’ households since they were very young. Some of them feel safer on the streets than in the homes they come from or in hostels where there can be no privacy and much drug-taking, drunkenness and abuse. It can be very hard for them to develop resilience and as soon as their lives improve a little, sometimes they self-destruct. Some people have had so much trauma in their lives, they simply can’t function.
Mikkel said that once a person becomes accustomed to sleeping rough, they develop a completely different set of survival skills to protect themselves. It is important not to measure people in that situation by the same yardstick that we might make judgments about our neighbours.
The most important thing to remember when engaging with people on the streets is to only do what feels right to us. We too need to be in touch with our gut instincts.
People who are homeless are on their own life journey in the same way that the rest of us are. When we meet them, we hold up a mirror very close to ourselves. This is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on how we are feeling when we engage or do not engage with strangers on the streets. We can question why we feel this way and what do we need to deal with in ourselves?
Living on the streets changes a person and all of us have to learn to let go of judgment.
This was such a powerful discussion with everyone contributing and listening. There was so much to reflect on and we continued talking over drinks afterwards. Each one of us left the evening feeling much more thoughtful and those of us who had not done so before resolved to take the first steps towards beginning to engage with people on the streets ‘when it feels right’.
Huge thanks to Mikkel for giving so generously of his time and for facilitating the discussion so gently. He started UnderOneSky six years ago as an initiative to offer support to homeless people sleeping rough particularly in winter when it is cold. His teams go out on the streets in groups with parcels containing a number of items including a small gift voucher which enables people to purchase everyday things which they might be acutely in need of.
If you would like to learn more and donate, please go to https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/2017-18-winter-support-for-london-s-homeless#/
If you would like to take part in the work of UnderOneSky or observe what is going on, you are welcome to join the Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/432122693577153/