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  • Writer's pictureHelen

Pup Tents in the Park

Squeezed between the Salvation Army Hall and the Municipal Car Park on the edge of our town is a small park. I like to walk through it on the way into town – the gardeners there are creative.

About three weeks ago, I spotted a colourful pup tent in the corner of the garden, well out of the way of passers-by. The following week, two more tents were added. Curious, I posted a question on one of the town's Facebook page to ask what was going on.

I discovered these were homeless people camping with easy access to the Salvation Army who run a soup kitchen. A woman posted that she knew two of the tents' inhabitants and they posed no threat. ‘Leave them be, they’re not doing anyone any harm’ was the general response. Some pointed out the need for a night shelter in our town and the existence of agencies to help. One man reminded us that Storm Ciaran was imminent – this was no time to be living in a tent. Virtually all the responses revealed compassion for the tent dwellers and an instinctive reaction against the idea of being homeless.

Then Maria, a former mayor and conscientious town councillor, posted that relevant organisations have been contacted and the homeless people had left. I wondered just how many relevant organisations there would be on this occasion.

During the 90s, I did public relations for several homelessness organisations, among them Emmaus UK. In those years, I learned never ever to talk about ‘the homeless’, only homeless people - because ordinary people is what they are in so many ways. I met all kinds including ex-military personnel and bank managers and natural wanderers with itchy feet. Many of them suffered with mental health problems. Many of them had suffered at the hands of bureaucrats. At times of crisis, a cold tent in a park may sometimes be preferable to navigating a tangle of impatient or patronising officialdom. I knew from experience that Councillor Maria was correct when she commented, ‘sometimes people don’t want what is offered.’

Successive governments have shown themselves unable to solve the multi-layered conundrum which homelessness presents. It can involve virtually all the ills of modern societies: sudden redundancy and subsequent debt, broken and/or abusive relationships in families, unscrupulous landlords, drug and alcohol addiction, serious illness or death of a major breadwinner. Emmaus workers used to ask prospective supporters a thought-provoking question: What would have to happen in your life for you to end up on the streets? Homelessness is not so far from most of us as we think.

As I walked into town this morning, I was still wondering about the occupants of those tents. I saw that indeed the tents have disappeared and the Town Council has closed the park. On each of its three gates they’d posted a notice with a coat of arms. This closure, the notices say, is due to ‘encampment of tents’. Three! And then the final statement: ‘We apologise for the inconvenience.’

This allusion to the moving on of homeless people as an ‘inconvenience’ is wrong on all levels. It does no justice to the complex problems faced by homeless people nor to the genuine concern of at least some of the thoughtful people who pay their rates in this comparatively wealthy area. Ironically the language fails to reflect even the good work of the Council itself which, after questioning from Maria and others, has made some serious attempts to help the people in the pup tents in a stormy week.

Politicians both local and natural need to think more seriously about the words they use. Maybe we could all benefit by asking ourselves some questions about how we think and speak about homeless people and many other 'inconvenient' groups.

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