Meeting the invisible

I often claim to have knocked on every door and attempted to speak with every resident in the ward I represent. Actually, I usually preface this assertion with ‘almost’ because some are difficult to reach, if not near impossible. Aside from the moving target nature of the task (there is churn amongst the residents that can be quite high in the areas with a significant rental sector) it is a quite slow task. The sheer number of doors and residents mean that with limited resources this is a slow task.

I am aware that my ambition to have at least spoken with everyone ignores an important fact. Since my door knocking is done with electoral roll in hand one can see that only those on the roll will get the chance to sample my humble doorstep technique. So, those who are not registered may not see me, although I still manage a number of these too, and I will always encourage registration among the disenfranchised.

Yet despite all this there still is one category of people for whom the political process in any of its guises is an unknown country, and these are the vagrant. Vagrancy is far from a large problem in my town, but it does seem to be creeping up. It is also mentioned by a significant number of residents, largely because of the nuisance that some vagrants make of themselves.

I was reminded of all this on a visit to a homeless hostel. I should point out the distinction between vagrancy and homelessness which simply boils down to rough sleeping. There are many homeless who sofa surf, use hostels, use hotels and guest houses, or impose on friends and family. These people, in many ways invisible to politicians, are nonetheless dependent on decisions taken by politicians. They are not vagrant in the truest sense of the word, although an element of vagrancy may be imposed on them. I am also aware that some will be forced (and, perhaps, choose) to alternate rough sleeping with temporary covered solutions. Most often this is sofa surfing, the phenomena where a friends allows someone to ‘crash’ for a few nights before they move onto to another tolerant friend.

Say the word ‘homeless’ and often negative images come to mind. Squatters, so reviled in the right-wing media, are one manifestation. These are often painted as freeloading vandals who are somehow getting something for free at the expense of the rest of us. Tramps are another, and anyone familiar with George Orwell’s work will be familiar with his tragic and moving descriptions. Beggars are a third image, and often a cause of complaint.

My meeting with the homeless met none of the above categories. Young single girls, one a mother, were what I was confronted with. Articulate, uncomplaining, and thoughtful in explaining their circumstances. No sense of entitlement, looking for a helping hand so that they could begin to make their societal contribution. This small example of homelessness included a five month old baby girl. Against all expectations they were willing to engage with this politician and understood that voting mattered. They were seeing the system from the bottom, and made aware that decisions taken by people like me really mattered to their lives.

I like to think of myself as someone who champions the underdog, fights for the dispossessed and the victims of prejudice. I do not think of myself as complacent, yet I realised that I might be. For all the theorising there is nothing like meeting the homeless and realising that whilst beggars and vagrants may be a nuisance, young families are also parts of this equation.

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