When is alone, even more lonely?

Matt Harding, Charity Insurance Executive gives his views on a new initiative for homeless people which may overlook one of the most isolating aspects of rough sleeping.  

The recent government announcement that they intend to eliminate rough sleeping by 2027 is an objective which has been broadly welcomed. Coincidentally on the same day, a charity in Oxfordshire announced a pilot scheme to provide homeless people with laminated bar codes, which they can wear around their neck on a lanyard. The scheme is designed so that non-cash carrying donors can scan the bar codes using their mobile phones and make a digital donation. This innovative scheme is one which I personally applaud, but at the same time one with which I must admit to feeling slightly ill at ease.

Homelessness is a rising problem across the UK. According to latest government figures, 4751 people were sleeping rough on the streets of England in autumn 2017, a rise of 15% on 2016. Many argue that nobody should be homeless in a highly developed society such as our own. So, on the face of it a charity thinking outside the box to help generate funds for people who find themselves homeless is commendable.

So why do I feel so uncomfortable about this new scheme? In my opinion, ‘scanning’ people diminishes the opportunity for social interaction – the one thing that so many homeless people report is missing from their everyday lives. Having worked with clients in the charity sector, I have met many homeless people and have seen at first hand that one of the biggest psychological barriers they have to overcome is the feeling of isolation.
I have spoken with many people who expressed how being homeless gave them the feeling that they are somehow no longer part of society, to the point where they feel that passers-by treat them with disdain or worse still ignore them entirely. Those who find themselves without a home can often feel invisible to society, a dark shadow that nobody wants to acknowledge and human interaction can be as important to the well-being of a homeless person as the money they receive.

The innovative ways in which charities are looking to help support homeless people are without doubt both valuable and worthy, but could the act of reducing an individual to a ‘bar code’ in itself be a way of isolating people? Perhaps I’m taking the scheme too literally, perhaps the lanyards will not be particularly visible but they will just be produced when someone stops by a homeless person, but I can’t help but feel that the interaction could become similar to that of a self-service check out. There a temptation to wave your phone, scan a ticket and walk away feeling a sense of self-gratification, whilst denying that person the human interaction they so desperately need?

Society is crying out for charities who are prepared to break with convention and provide new and innovative ways to generate funds and help those in need. I fully support this approach and its assured success. But perhaps we should all consider, the next time we pass a homeless person in the street, that acknowledgment and respect for our fellow man (and woman) could be just as important as a financial donation.
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