Opinion

Poverty is an illness, and a sticking plaster won't do

Where are the long-term solutions to poverty, asks Big Issue vendor Tony Wood

Homeless man on bench

Most of the so-called “solutions” to the state of poverty do little more than provide a sticking plaster that will suppress one or more symptoms for a day or two, but permit, sometimes even encourage, the malady to re-emerge, often astonishingly quickly, and sometimes even in a more virulent form.

The pathology of poverty seems to have quite a lot in common with that of many illnesses, and simply covering up an illness for a period of time has little to do with providing an actual cure.

The same is true of many aspects of the poverty industry and its sidekick, the homelessness industry, which seems to have more to do with creating warm, fuzzy feelings in the hearts of the many donors – governmental, institutional, and private – than providing real help where it’s actually needed.

I can see lots of well-intended compassion, but where’s the respect?

I can see lots of well-intended compassion, but where’s the respect? People who are homeless are effectively, if not technically, devoid of rights, except it seems the right to be treated patronisingly as second-class citizens – even if their problems are not of their own making.

Perhaps the lucky among them will be granted a bed in a shared hostel dormitory of doubtful safety, have sandwiches (often of a type they would not normally choose to eat) stuffed down their throats and be given a cup of vaguely coffee-flavoured hot water and a pat on the head to send them on their way to fight yet another day.

  • As part of The Big Issue Platform, we are inviting people from all strands of society to tell us what can be done about homelessness. Get in touch @BigIssue

The above scenario is contemporary reality. It is happening now, in this so-called civilised country. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly can help, and does have a value, if somewhat limited and fleeting, but is more suited to the world of emergency relief aid in times of natural disaster than dealing with a long-term virulent epidemic of gargantuan proportions.

Who actually benefits from this in the long term? Certainly not the intended beneficiaries, since such aid only helps further stigmatise the poor and homeless, perpetuating the suffering and humiliation. It also creates a culture of subservient dependence.

Homeless man
Rough sleepers with psychiatric issues spend longer on the streets

You will no doubt sleep easier in your beds in the knowledge that you have done your bit to help “get someone off the street”. You have certainly achieved something – possibly something in itself quite laudable. You may even have helped prolong a person’s life for another day or two. But prolonged it for exactly what?

Let’s set the record straight. I admit to not being your archetypal homeless person, although I am technically homeless and have spent most of the past year living on the streets of London. In fact I spent the previous 17 years out of the UK in several other countries, most recently assisting with various social initiatives.

When I returned to England I was shocked to see the widening gap between what used to be known as the “haves” and “have nots”. Where is the humanity? Where are the long-term solutions? We are still only witnessing sticking plasters that can do little more than manipulate the statistics. The solution would seem to be obvious, and very much along the lines of The Big Issue’s initiatives to address root causes and find permanent solutions.

At the most fundamental level the answer to reducing and ultimately eliminating poverty is primarily one of education, in many of its manifestations, along the lines of the well-known axiom: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

In reality this will cost very much less in the long term than the existing multiplicity of sticking-plaster solutions. However, this can only be achieved through compassion, encouragement and demonstration, not through coercion and the whip.

It also involves first of all identifying and resolving the fundamental issues that brought about individual conditions of poverty in the first place. Assistance must be personalised at the individual level through tailor-made solutions, and not by applying the prevailing (and unsuccessful) one-size-fits-all remedies.

Assistance must be personalised at the individual level through tailor-made solutions

Education of the right type will not provide all the answers, and a safety net will clearly be needed to protect the vulnerable who are unable to benefit from it. Nevertheless, it will go a very long way.

Now let’s talk about status quo. No, not the group! I refer to the rooted inertia and self-interest in maintaining situations exactly as they are with little real change, only tinkering with the superficialities.

Big Issue vendor Tony Wood
Tony Wood is a Big Issue vendor in Victoria, London

There are entrenched vested interests in the poverty industry, ranging from those within governmental departments, the many established charities and even business-endowed philanthropic organisations. These can all be classified as coming under the general umbrella of what can, and is, called the “Do Good” society. “Do gooders” like to, well, “do good”. But they themselves are in reality often the main beneficiary of their activities.

Do the poor of our society not deserve better than that? In these uncertain political and economic times, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the UK could once again lead the way in doing something meaningful and of international significance?

That is to say, through seriously addressing poverty by a government-driven, genuine and effective initiative dealing with root causes, and once and for all, except in the most extreme cases, doing away with sticking plasters.

@outcastfdn

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