Blog: ‘The homeless do not seem to drink in here’

In a week which saw the Scottish Government publish its action plan for tackling homelessness, Bruce Forbes gives his take on the policy developments and the upcoming ‘Sleep in the Park’ events.

Like his predecessor and great hero, Robert Burns, the late, wonderful Bard of Dundee, Michael Marra, could cut to the heart of an important social issue with the words of a song.

While I have been reading this week about ‘Sleep in the Park’  and the Scottish Government’s ‘Ending Homelessness Together Action Plan’, all very laudable I am sure, I couldn’t help thinking about the words Michael wrote in his song, “The Homeless Do Not Seem to Drink in Here.”

You can now check it out on Spotify. The live version features an introduction in which Michael explains how he came to write it after visiting a well known Glasgow city centre hostelry, sober, for a pint, after doing a gig in Castlemilk. Immediately, he is regaled by his fellow customers increasingly pontificating, the drunker they get, about their concerns for the terrible plight of the poor.

His response is summed up with the lines:

“There’s a world out there you cannot see or understand,

“Did you think it is the quality or preference of beer,

“Why the hungry and the homeless do not seem to drink in here,

“The homeless do not seem to drink in here.”

This takes me on to ‘Sleep in the Park’. I have never done this, nor do I ever intend to. There seems to me to be a certain lack of taste, even respect, in predominantly well-off middle-class people raising money for those unfortunate enough to still be homeless by, for one night only, trying to replicate what the poorest in our society have to suffer every day of their lives. Of course, the fundraisers are also having a “good night out”, protected by their top of the range sleeping bags – no cardboard boxes here – and without the indignity of being kicked or spat on by drunken passers-by. I also wonder if they feel any pangs of guilt or can see the irony when they take a nip to keep out the cold. Do they wonder what falling off the wagon might do to some of those they are trying to help?

As Michael said: “There’s a world out there you cannot see or understand.”

To help them through the night, these modern day 5% Philanthropists are also being entertained by some high profile musical and comedy acts. Rumours abound that their appearance is not entirely out of the goodness of their hearts as fairly hefty fees are involved. I somehow don’t think the Bard of Dundee would have played this kind of gig.

Then, of course, we come to the latest in a long line of government action plans to eradicate homelessness. From experience, its chances of success are pretty poor. We all know that homelessness is a far more complex problem than just finding someone a home. To even make a genuine attempt to end it needs a long term commitment to people with the complex mental health and addiction issues that need intensive, and very expensive, support at far greater levels of investment than is currently prioritised by the Scottish Government and local councils. Most importantly, we all know this in many cases, needs committed, experienced, highly qualified and consequently, well paid staff and co-ordinated services if success rates are to increase. The reality of course is the frustration for low paid front-line support staff, many of whom are not even paid a living wage, and who do not get the back-up resources they need to achieve positive results.

Bruce Forbes

This is where we get to the nub of the problem. The obscene gap between rich and poor is now greater than it was, even in the Victorian days of 5% philanthropy. The philanthropy of Victorian times was, of course, as much motivated by a desire to counter the need for state intervention and looking at the Britain and Scotland of today – food-banks, crisis grants, free meals for poor children during school holidays – it seems we are back in the days of Dickensian novels rather than those of an enlightened and modern, interventionist, European state. When you open your eyes and see daily, the devastating, and marginally greater impact, which Universal Credit is having on single, vulnerable people, it’s not rocket science to conclude that an action plan without vastly increased resources will see the homelessness merry go-round keep on turning.

To me, there only seems to be one way forward. Instead of sleeping out for one night, and thinking the solution to poverty is within the realms of co-ordinated philanthropy to tackle, let’s ask all our politicians to really address the obscenity of the gap between rich and poor head on. Let’s demand, therefore, more radical economic and social policies designed to genuinely re-distribute wealth in our society by having those with the obscene wealth, including A-list celebrities, contribute their fair share instead of meekly relying on them for their charitable hand-outs.

  • Bruce Forbes is director at Angus Housing Association Limited, but writes here in a personal capacity

Tags: homelessness

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