Homelessness, Social commentary

Rough sleeping & the inverse reality of social media

The plight of another human being sleeping rough is one of the most visceral and obvious expressions of poverty and social exclusion. The instinctive empathy it provokes makes rough sleeping a potent subject on social media.

For example, a few years ago a video went viral which showed how Amazon Prime could be used to deliver goods directly to people begging on the streets of New York. The video was watched 1.8m times in less than a week and its online success sparked widespread interest in the mainstream media.

Heart-warming

There is no doubt that the producer made a successful online film. It showed an innovative way to help others in need and the moment people receive the packages created heart-warming content.

But what is more important than the film’s reception, is the effectiveness of what it profiles. Is delivering goods direct to people actually an effective way of helping people? Does it make a genuine difference to their situations?

From my experience, these forms of one-way giving are very limited in the help they provide. Popularity is often confused with effectiveness: and this leads to the growth of approaches that are less helpful, and the marginalisation of those which are.

Confusion

A couple of years ago on 23rd December, I encountered an enthusiastic group, all wearing branded ‘helping the homeless’ hoodies, giving out Santa sacks full of goodies in central London. 

The sacks were received positively and the moment of exchange produced similar reactions to the Amazon deliveries. But as I walked down the side streets, I saw sack after sack discarded. Some items had been taken, many had been abandoned.

However ‘heart-warming’ an idea, this was not an effective way of helping people. Especially as the group were unaware that they were only a few hundred yards away from an excellent and long established resource centre for people affected by homelessness.

Popular

Another community group recycles old crisp packets into ‘bivvy-bags’ designed for use by people sleeping rough.  Thousands of old crisp packets are collected, cleaned and posted to their HQ. There, teams of enthusiastic volunteers iron them together to create (in effect) massive crisp packets which people can use to sleep in.

On social media, the combination of recycling and homelessness is a potent mix.  The group’s online videos of volunteers producing (what they describe as) ‘life-saving’ items are very popular.  Their content focuses almost entirely on their ‘amazing’ donors and ‘incredible’ volunteers and their ‘huge’ output of items produced.

Again, there is no doubt of the good intentions of those involved. But there is a complete absence anything related to the impact of this work. Do people sleeping rough even use the hundreds of big crisp packets they produce?  And is this an informed or dignified way to address rough sleeping?

Inverse reality

People have an instinctive desire to give to others and to be compassionate to those in obvious need. This is a part of what makes us human. But this drive needs to be allied to thoughtfulness and honesty about the impact of our actions.

And social media does not always encourage thoughtfulness and honesty.

After almost 30 years of work with people affected by homelessness, I have concluded that there is an inverse relationship between popularity on social media and what truly helps people. In other words:

The more popular on social media, the less effective it probably is in resolving rough sleeping.

Transactional

Day after day, I see social media posts packed with images full of the hot drinks, free food and clothing being distributed.  Like the Amazon deliveries, these immediate, transactional elements are very popular online.  Social media tends to:

  • Emphasise the food and other material resources being distributed
  • Focus on a one-way exchange between generous donor and grateful recipient
  • Present the group profiled as the only ones helping
  • Fuel a naivety about the simplicity of the issues involved in rough sleeping

Relational

However, the most important work to address rough sleeping is that which helps people come off the streets and into accommodation. 

This involves the building of trust, the conversations encouraging a housing referral, the form-filling, the assessments and often specialist case work. 

These relational elements are far less popular online, but are at the core of effective work.  In contrast to what social media emphases, the reality is:

  • Material needs are one aspect of rough sleeping but the deeper issues relate to people’s relationships with others and how they see themselves. Building trust and confidence is often far more important than giving out material goods.
  • The best work empowers people to take positive steps of their own. However generous, no one can ‘change’ anyone else. And people are transformed far more by what they give and contribute to, rather than what they simply receive.  
  • In most towns and cities, there is no shortage of groups giving out food and resources. Communication and collaboration is often what is most needed.
  • The challenges facing many people sleeping rough are not simple to fix. The blend of issues people face often requires a long process of careful work.

Better use of social media

I want to be clear that I am not anti-social media. After all, this is probably the route by which you got to see this article. Writing a blog over the last 11 years has shown me the value of sharing stories of people like my friend Chris Ward, a former rough sleeper whose recovery journey has inspired so many others.

I have also seen how twitter has provided a great platform for marginalised voices to share their personal experiences and frontline work. Another good example is Help us Help which profiles what is available to people sleeping rough in Sheffield and how best to help. It’s content is raw, honest and upfront.

Social media is not going away, it’s part of our lives. When it comes to homelessness, the challenge is how it can amplify reality rather than the sentimental or the ineffective. This way, it can help us all learn and be inspired by those who have escaped the nightmare of rough sleeping and have taken steps to a better life.

9 thoughts on “Rough sleeping & the inverse reality of social media”

  1. You are spot on, Jon. I have said that the most important part of buying a Big Issue is the time spent talking to and listening to the seller – a better sort of transactional. If we do not address the root cause of why someone became homeless, we are not helping. Just sending Amazon parcels is a sop to the donor’s conscience, and sadly not worth the minute or so good that it does for the recipient. Possibly the benefit of social media to the homeless is in helping people understand how people end up on the streets – through blogs like yours, and other informed posts. Rough sleeping is a complex problem and will take more than goodwill and generosity to solve.

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    1. thanks Lorna – I think your many years working in services/communities which encourage and empower real change is really relevant here. Be good if social media carried more of the kind of work that you have been so involved in.

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  2. You raise a very good point Jon which is, who are these interventions “for”?
    There was a tale in my early years in homelessnsss of a famous musical group dropping off crates of Special Brew outside a Central London hostel at Christmas in the early 90s. I presume thought they were making some statement about people experiencing homelessness having a party like everyone else? Except they didn’t stick around to see the consequences of their actions. Or wonder how helping people to be completely blitzed would help them?
    Is morality about intention or outcome? Whats the relationship between “ends” and “means” What (if anything) constitutes “tough love” and compassion? To what extent should the plight of the most destitute impact on our behaviour around other socially excluded people? How do we model the behaviour we want to see in wider society?
    Deep philosophical questions with no easy answers. But ones that need to be asked nonetheless.

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    1. Thanks Paul – I can always rely on you to bring some 90s anecdotes!

      Your questions are important ones. Here is my stab at answering them:

      Is morality about intention or outcome? I think morality is relevant to how much you care about the connection between intentions and outcomes. Many people and projects start off in way of working which they later acknowledge as naïve. I think the morality is relevant to how willing they are to look honestly at the outcomes of what they are doing. We cannot claim our intentions are 100% positive if we stubbornly ignore the evidence that the outcomes are not what was intended or not positive.

      Whats the relationship between “ends” and “means”? It simple to say but good ‘means’ produce good ‘ends’ – but in this field of work the situation continually evolves and needs services which flex and adapt. A certain response to need will always be beset by moral hazards and create unwanted outcomes. What is designed to help easily gets misused and need adapting and targeting and refining.

      What (if anything) constitutes “tough love” and compassion? This is why I like the tension between grace and truth. I think ‘love’ is basically a combination of grace and truth and this is why its so fundamental for all relationships.

      Ultimately all transformative work deals in truth – this is best seen in AA groups or rehab or counselling. For people damaged and affected by trauma, they need grace and acceptance to make positive steps to deal with reality. We have to shape our responses in ‘truth-shaped’ ways rather than colluding. Good frontline work always balances personal and social responsibility.

      To what extent should the plight of the most destitute impact on our behaviour around other socially excluded people? We need balance. For example, 90% of people using soup runs are not street homeless or rough sleeping but they do have other needs which require help – but these are generally chronic problems rather than short-term crisis issues. We need to have provision for people affected by food poverty and loneliness without lumping them into a ‘homelessness’ box which is not truthful. With the cost of living issues currently this is even more relevant.

      How do we model the behaviour we want to see in wider society? We need to be honest with ourselves and live out the blend of grace and truth (or kindness and honesty if you prefer) within our relationships, families, friends, sports clubs, churches, workplaces. I think society needs to be better at avoiding the damaging dichotomy between cynicism and naivety – and being better at embodying a compassionate realism about these issues.

      Just my thoughts in response to your deep questions!

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  3. To correct Paul Anderson the crates of beer were not delivered to a hostel..but delivered to a temporary Christmas shelter set up by the Quakers and unbeknown to them The crates of beer turned up in a flatbed lorry..and left outside in a graveyard outside the Church just across Southwark Bridge..How do I know this.? Because was street homeless at the time..and the Quakers allow people experiencing homelessness as couples..or people with pets ( dogs) no questions asked Unlike most homeless hostels..Couples nor people with pets who are experiencing homelessness..Sorry you don’t fit our criteria
    Best wishes Jon
    Stayed winter shelter in Hinde Street also in the basement of the church..I slept in the prayer room on my fold up camp bed..the volunteers kindly set for me..as disabled and a pensenior. And a few more on the programme

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    1. Thanks ‘Fred’! Always good to hear from you. Hope you are well – and a nice shout out to Hinde Street, my former office base when I worked at WLM and one of the churches engaged in the Westminster Churches Winter Shelter which ran 2011-2020

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