‘Be More Kind’. It’s a phrase that’s following me around at the moment. It came to me as the name of Frank Turner’s next upcoming album, and a perceivable return to his more political style of old (see Thatcher F***ed the Kids, circa 2008). It seems to have come around at the right time – for the world, and for angst-riddled so-and-sos like me. Lines like this one, from the album’s first single release, 1933:
“You can’t fix the world if all you have is a hammer,”
certainly typifies much of 2018 from my view.
Most of the contemporary problems we face seem to share one common characteristic: a distinct lack of kindness. Look at the university strike crisis. This is the sixth day in three weeks that students at the University of Sheffield (amongst many others) have been left without tuition – and all because those at the top won’t sit down to discuss how the new pension reforms will hurt the academics and lecturers below.
Trust me, academics don’t want to be out on the picket line. They want to teach and learn – it’s exactly why I got into this profession in the first place (as I suppose many of us did). With a little more kindness from our superiors, this whole thing could have been sorted out a long time ago. But here we are.
I do think it’s ironic that the research institutions like ours that pride themselves on supposedly understanding and bettering the world around us, don’t even know how to resolve a dispute in their own backyard. (SPOILER ALERT: it involves talking and, most importantly, listening.)
This is not the only puzzle evading us in our relatively-warm-and-comfy offices – which brings me on to what I want to talk about today: homelessness. Everyone I speak to lately tends to (anecdotally) back the trend: homelessness is as pressing an issue as ever, with more (visible) rough sleepers on the streets of Sheffield – and indeed, the vast majority of our towns and cities – than ever before.
Whether this is statistically true or not, in my view, is irrelevant. I don’t need to see a quantitative dataset to know whether homelessness is on the up, or in decline. There are people sleeping on the streets. There were people sleeping outside last night. And tonight, there will be people sleeping out there again.
Sadly, I don’t have any kind of solution in mind. In fact, it was a few days ago, in the literal eye of the storm, that I felt the most powerless to help. I actually felt quite guilty, looking out from my flat window at the inches of virgin snow covering the hills of ever-affluent Fulwood (West Sheffield), and thinking of those who would be later sleeping on slush and slurry whilst I tossed and turned on my memory-foam mattress topper, stealing the 13.5 tog duvet from my less-than-impressed but ever-forgiving partner.
I have often thought that living this way, in the warmth and comfort of a rented room, has become something of a privilege. (It should be a basic human right, of course, but clearly, it isn’t.) The problem now, it seems, has now developed into something far more sinister.
Being homelessness in 2018 is a privilege. (Yup, you read that right.)
When the cold snap hit its bitterest point last week, media discourse centred its focus not on how to help homeless people out of the cold, but rather, on how to distinguish between ‘fake beggars’ and real ones – with rough sleepers forced to “prove they are genuinely homeless” in order to keep their place on the street. Fixing the world with a hammer, indeed.
I could genuinely talk about this with you for hours, but I’ll spare you the time because, in all honesty, I don’t think you’d be able to prevent the same conclusion that I always come to:
surely, anyone desperate enough to be out in this cold, begging on the streets, must be desperate enough to do so.
I recently tried making this case to an highly-ranked local government official (who shall, of course, remain anonymous), only for the conversation to carry even further down the ‘fake beggars’ rabbit hole. The matter of validity, in my opinion, completely detracts from the main issue at hand. Which is convenient, of course, for those who are publicly accountable for our well-being, who haven’t yet solved the problem of homelessness in their wards and boroughs – although I’m sure this convenience is merely coincidental.
I’ll hold my hands up and openly admit that I don’t yet have an answer for the homelessness crisis either, but I imagine being more kind would be a damn good start. Right now, though, whilst choosing to support the UCU strike by staying off-campus, I find myself not on the picket line with my colleagues and friends, but sat alone at my laptop in Ink and Water cafe, typing this up, feeling only ever-so-slightly less helpless than I did in my homely snowstorm shelter.
When the strike ends – and I sincerely hope it ends sooner, rather than later, and with a satisfactory result for the people who make our universities truly great – I hope those academics who opted to stand out on a snow-littered picket line, when walking back into their offices again, spare a thought for the homeless people they shared a street with. Maybe then, we can start to move past the institutional barriers that have held our research up, and start to work towards solving the problems in the community beyond – our hammers left at home, with kindness in their place.