What it feels like… to work with homeless people.

By Daf Viney, London.

I recently started work as an outreach worker for Borderline, working with Scottish rough sleepers across London.

I’m often asked if people on the streets choose to be there because they like the way of life. It’s almost always more complicated than that, but it is true that leaving the streets and moving into a new place can be a difficult and scary experience. There are a lot of factors which can put people off, some of which come as a surprise.

One of the homeless people I work with – we’ll call him Norman – recently moved into a hostel after spending around two and a half years on the streets of London. As you might expect, he’d lost practically everything he owned during this time. We got a grant from St Columba’s Church to buy clothes and other essentials, so soon after he moved in we went to a popular high street clothes shop.

Norman was still wearing the clothes he’d had while on the streets and was looking forward to getting a new wardrobe, but as we entered the shop together a security guard stood in his way, shook his head and prevented him from going inside. He’d made a judgment about Norman based simply on the way he looked.

Norman explained why he was there, but the security guard remained reluctant to let him. I asked Norman if he wanted to go somewhere else, but he was keen on this particular shop so I explained to the security guard why we were there and even showed him the cash we were about to spend. He eventually stood aside.

What had been planned as a fun trip – mostly practical, but also a way to boost Norman’s self-esteem – didn’t end that way. He felt humiliated and, although I’d tried to avoid it, as I’d stepped in on his behalf he felt less empowered than when we’d started the trip.

It was a reminder to Norman that he was still not a part of mainstream society and a reminder to me of the many obstacles faced by the homeless people I work with that I never see.