I am homeless, but I have a smart phone, like to dress well and I’m a slave to a nice glass of Rioja once in a while. People are less likely to give a beggar their spare change if they have a phone or a cigarette in their hand. In the same way, people resent me for having nice things and looking nice while I can’t afford a house. They think I’m getting being poor “wrong”, like there are a set of rules that I’m not following, and that I don’t deserve life’s little luxuries.
Life without a home hasn’t made me want to start living a frugal existence of white bread and a single can of value lager when I’ve got that Friday feeling. The five pounds I spend on a glass of wine every once in a while is not going to scratch the surface of a deposit, but your disapproval is sure going to make me want to drink the whole bottle and then throw it at you. When things turn to shit, why can’t a gyal still enjoy a nice glass of Vino Tinto? Surely people who don’t have much are the last people who should be made to feel guilty for wanting take the edge off.
Even some of my family have slipped up and bought into this unfair idea – sitting across the dinner table moaning about women on council house programmes who have had their nails done, just an hour after complimenting me on my new haircut.
Last week’s Dispatches documentary on Channel 4, “Breadline Kids” was the latest to bring out insensitive vitriol from the idiots of Twitter. For those who didn’t see it, the programme was about children growing up so poor that they often had to go hungry. Under the hashtag #breadlinekids, most people were supportive of the people featured and horrified at their situation. But a few decided to look past that, and focus on the fact that one of the mothers featured spent £20 a week on wine and had dyed hair and pointed out that you could buy a lot of food for that money. Which does make sense on the surface, until you find out that it was Lambrini, drunk by a mother driven to prostitution because she couldn’t find work despite her cooking qualifications. She drunk to numb the shame and pain of selling her body to feed her kids, and it was turning her alcoholic. Pretty sad, right?
By the end of the episode she decided to give up prostitution for her mental health’s sake and seek help to stop drinking, but not before someone had coined his own c-word hashtag to attack her.
Okay, so this is the world of Twitter, where the world’s most ignorant people were giving their real time reactions to being confronted with the hidden reality of poverty. But unfortunately, it happens elsewhere too. I often get pissed off when I read people’s Facebook statuses, or overhear conversations on the train, or read some shit headline in a sensationalist newspaper.
Selling a £250 phone one time is not going to cover the £500 a month my family still has to pay for our temporary accommodation. Nor would it pay for the £1,000 pounds to privately rent a house somewhere inexpensive, or the £2,000 to cover mortgage repayments. The UK has a critical shortage of good, affordable housing – everyone selling their phones to Computer Exchange isn’t going to build new homes.
Apart from the fact that they simply don’t make sense, these unthinking, throwaway statements place too much onus on the struggling individual than the society that is making them struggle. We shouldn’t be playing Eye Spy through windows, looking at people’s possessions, we should be looking carefully at the context. Instead we seem to prefer to demand that parents tell their kid that Santa isn’t going to come this year, and whatever he brought last year, the Easter bunny’s sending back.
If people are looking to point the finger, perhaps we should start blaming advertising campaigns, which convince us that the latest piece of technology is a necessity and not a luxury. The sad irony is that people like my teenage sister are all the more susceptible. Dealing with the trauma of living without a home, having the same stuff as everyone else is even more important and helps her stop feeling like she’s different and below everyone else.
And what about the treats you bought before you became homeless, or the ones you got for Christmas from friends, or the ones you bought yourself after a great month at work just before you were made redundant. Should you sell them to satisfy the self-appointed poverty police of the Daily Mail when things get tough? Would people like that be more forgiving if I conformed to a homeless stereotype, dressing in rags and carrying my belongings round in a plastic bag? No, they’re probably the kind of people who would lay some spikes on the pavement to make me go away.
I’m not saying that my family should just expect to keep spending the same amount of money on luxuries as everyone else. We don’t. Apart from rent, my mum still has to pay for council tax, food, petrol, pound coins for the communal washing machine, my sister’s school lunch money, and toiletries – things are really tight. But sometimes buying stuff helps retain a sense of normality. Other times, it gives us glimmers of hope – like when we buy trinkets ready to put in the new house that we are definitely going to get eventually.
I spoke to a woman the other day living in a hostel that used to buy a bottle of fizzy drink and some treats to for her ten-year-old daughter every night because telling her they were having a party would stop her from thinking about where they were living. So they turned up Marvin and Tammi and sung themselves to sleep. It was something her kid associated with fun, happy times and not the damp stale walls of their half way house. Spending money on sugary drinks wasn’t ideal, but that’s the thing about coping mechanisms – you can’t cope without them.
And as for drinking, of course, alcohol can never solve anything – everyone knows that – but it can certainly help soothe things. Living the emotional rollercoaster of temporary accommodation I can safely say, thanks booze! Drinking can send you over the edge, but it can bring you back from the brink as well. Either way, a single mother should not be called a “cunt” for drinking. I would never call anyone that anyway, because my mum brought me up right. But if anyone deserves that label, maybe we should save the insult for the people trying to shame her.