Why we feel guilty, and what needs to change
Manchester is, in every sense, a modern metropolis. It is the country’s third largest city, with industrial era warehouses that it has wisely preserved and repurposed, maintaining a strong sense of heritage. A cultural center for the arts, a thoroughly urban economy, and, emblamatically of the 21st century — with income inquality now at the highest levels since the previous peak of the ‘roaring 20s’ — a place where you will find both England’s most affluent, and it’s most deprived. Walking on the streets, especially the busier ones in Northern Quarter or Piccadilly, you will encounter tens of people wrapped up in sleeping bags or sitting on cardboard — all with limited access to food, hygiene, and healthcare.
Homelessness in the UK is growing a disturbing rate — the scale and severity to which have complex origins with no simple solutions. Preliminary reading will inform you of factors such as the Great Recession of the past decade, the lack of social safety nets, affordable housing and prospects for economic migrants, and the demoralising absence of political drive to combat homelessness. And in these larger socio-economic trends, there are the personal tragedies of individuals who struggle with mental health, addiction, and histories of abuse and dysfunction. This article will not address the larger structural changes that need to take place to solve Manchester’s homelessness crisis. Instead, it is an appeal for compassion and a warning against our desensitisation to the hardship of others.
Most of us do not deserve the things we have, that is the plain truth. At least, we do not deserve the things we have more than anyone else that — if born with our circumstances and privileges — would probably have worked just as hard and achieved just as much. In many ways, we know this, though the illusions of our own merit extend far beyond their actual boundaries. It is this fear that we have not earned our happiness that causes us to turn away from suffering, because there is that frightening thought that if things had unfolded slightly differently, we would be also sleeping in the cold. These mirrored realities — of what is versus what might well have been — also make it easy to vicariously experience the pain of others that we see. There are many more layers of anxiety to our reactions to the homeless. There is a fear of judgement in the sense that, since we are cognisant of own unworthiness, the homeless will also be aware and resent us all the more for it. However, this apprehension, which is really more of a reflection of what we think of ourselves, prevents us from extending help to others. Over the course of many days, some people may even moralise their apathy. I’ve heard friends and family members, normally capable of deep kindness, accuse the homeless of self-destruction brought about by their own incompetence and laziness. It is easier to dismiss the humanity of others than to confront our own insecurities.
But the homeless should not have to take the brunt of our indifference. Small gestures that extend basic human decency, such as smiling or saying ‘good morning’ to a homeless man or woman, would go a long way in overcoming our internal obstacles. Make conversation with the person who sits outside the coffee shop as you wait for your friend or wave at the woman by the bus station to show that you remember her. If you can, volunteer at a food bank or offer to buy something on your next trip to the shop. Though these courtesies that we would give any of our friends are not exactly impactful, our apathy is on the other hand actively damaging. The inability to confront guilt stunts the desire for meaningful political action. And there will be some days where we are too tired and where it is too difficult to see pain reflected back at us, but that is part of the process of learning what it means to care sincerely for others. Perhaps it is the most significant part — if we can wake up the next morning and resist the urge to never make an effort again, we know that we are one step closer to making a difference.