Christmas; for many it is a time for family gatherings, gifts, roast turkey dinners and pigs in blankets, but it is the loneliest time of year for the individuals that have nothing.
Opinions of the homeless are often divided, with debates about whether they are deserving of your sympathy being quite common. For example, you might recognise statements such as: ‘they brought it on themselves’ or ‘don’t give them money – they’ll only spend it on drugs’.
Oliver Holmes, 20, was recently involved in a social experiment called Change of Image, whereby participants were asked to change their normal way of life.
As Oliver was quite concerned with taking care of his personal appearance and enjoyed purchasing designer clothing, his task was to experience life as a homeless young adult, living on the streets of South-End-On-Sea.
Oliver Holmes (left).
During his time on the streets, Oliver observed how people treated him differently, Oliver said: ‘As soon as we stepped on the high street, we could feel that there was a complete difference in how people acted around us.
‘As I just walked, people were crossing the street to avoid me, avoiding eye contact and mothers were hastily moving their children out of the way.
‘Something that stood out was that only children would make eye contact with me, as they didn’t quite understand why I was carrying bin bags and looked tatty and dirty.
‘I decided to start begging on the high-street. After sitting there for a good 20 minutes not one person had gave me a penny.
‘people just ignored me, pretended I didn’t exist or tapped their “empty” pockets, with very minimal responses.
‘One man chucked me £1 without saying a word, which felt good but at the same time made me feel less human, because of how briskly he walked off without saying anything.
‘Eventually, a woman wearing some sort of council uniform came up to me and said it was illegal to beg and that I would have to move on, she didn’t really care where I went, I just had to leave the high-street. This disgusted me – I walked off further down the high-street, but didn’t leave it.’
Oliver then began interacting with the public to see how they would treat him, Oliver said: ‘I asked a fruit and vegetable stall if they had anything that they were throwing out or that they didn’t want and I was denied anything.
‘I pointed out that an orange that had fallen on the floor and asked for it, the man looked at it for a while and said, “well if it’s on the floor you can have it.”
‘Another lady, who was also working on the stall, overheard this and glared at him in a way that suggested she was frustrated with him. As if he was feeding a stray cat, that would only come back for more later on.’
Oliver also ventured into some shops to see how the staff and customers would react, Oliver said: ‘We went to McDonalds and the worker avoided any eye contact or conversation as much as possible. I asked if the water was free and he looked slightly amused, as if he was waiting for that question to be asked.
‘I then went searching for greater reactions and decided to walk around Debenhams make-up department – you can imagine the looks I got!
‘I also wandered the isles of M&S. They had set up a promotional stall that day and the staff were handing customers free samples of champagne and biscuits.
‘I observed that what people were offered varied, depending on what they looked like. For example, a young male would be offered a biscuit and young adult females or middle aged people, of either gender, would be offered a shot glass of champagne.
‘However, when I approached the stall nothing was offered to me. I then asked if I could try a biscuit and the man looked shocked and gave me a slow response of “It’s £7.50 a box”, instead of the usual “Yes! Go right ahead!”
‘I still went over and took one anyway, just as a way to say “fuck you!”’
‘At one point, while I sat on a bench reflecting on the day that I had had, someone walked past and spat on me. My friend Jon, who was also involved in the project, was also spat on by youths.
‘Jon had fell over in the high-street at one point, but no one had offered to help him up. After the experience of the day, he broke down and cried.
‘The day had affected him a lot. It affected me too and homeless people’s place in society was made clear; they were at the bottom of the food chain.
There are many negative stereotypes associated with homelessness, such as homeless people being dangerous, that they are homeless by choice and that they are drug addicts or alcoholics.
However statistics published by Crisis show that family conflict is the most immediate cause of homelessness in over 60% of rough sleepers. Research also shows that 69% of young homeless people aged 16-25, surveyed by the Mental Health Foundation, have mental health problems.
I also spoke to Oliver regarding what he thought about these negative stereotypes, Oliver said: ‘I admit that I used to be that person that would tap their “empty” pockets walking past, but since this experience I often put a bit of money in their cup, because just 50p changes their day hugely.
‘I have also bought food for a homeless man sitting outside Sainsbury’s and have sat down and had a chat with another homeless man, on the High-street, for at least an hour.’