Feature article: The ‘worthless’ demographic: beggars, buskers and Big Issue sellers.

The following is a feature article I wrote for my degree concerning homelessness in Bournemouth.

Thirteen years ago I held a steak-knife to a man’s throat. I told him to leave me alone to sleep. Needless to say, he wasn’t impressed, but neither was I. He had somewhere to stay. It was nearly October, it was cold and I was about to sleep on the beach. I had a car blanket, he’d had other ideas. He left issuing threats, but fortunately I didn’t see him again.

It’s better to sleep rough in groups, but it depends on your options. Having run out of floors, couches and armchairs my options were either with the addicts beneath the pier or on my own. Far beyond the point of no return with both parental units, going ‘home’ was not an option. So I chose solo alfresco by a shower near Bournemouth Pier. Weeks later I moved into a squat that looked like the picture above.

Bournemouth (pop. 163,900) is home to a large number of Big Issue sellers, beggars and buskers. I have been all of the above. In the last quartile of 2009, according to Communities & Local Government Statutory Homelessness Statistics, Bournemouth had 27 households accepted as being homeless and in priority need, of which the Council had housed three in B&B. The yearly rate of homelessness applications to the Council (BBC) has increased steadily over the last 20 years from 280 in 1990 to a staggering 2010 in 2009 and it seems unlikely to reverse in the current economic climate.

The government’s 2009 organisational assessment of BBC states, “The Council has done well to help homeless people. It has a good understanding of homelessness in Bournemouth. This means that it can concentrate on people who most need help. It also works hard to make sure that people do not become homeless.” However, the report does not state exactly what has been done and the waiting time for a Council house is currently 15 years.

There are many myths and assumptions regarding homeless people, some of which possess an element of truth and others that do not. I spoke to Jo, Dave and Pepsi about their experiences of homelessness and it is their words with which I hope to elucidate some of the notions surrounding what is becoming an ever more prevalent aspect of life in ‘sunny’ Bournemouth.

Myth 1: Homeless people will disappear if you ignore them

Jo, 30, who was busking and begging on the street when she was 17 said, “People don’t look at you really, ’cause you look scruffy, people don’t want to talk to you, but you learn how to deal with it. You can tell what kind of person someone is by looking at their shoes. Some people are more likely to give money than others.”

People avoid the homeless for other reasons too, such as them being ‘dirty’ or wariness of ‘catching something ‘. It is possible to be clean when homeless, but it’s a catch-22 situation. The public expects a certain appearance of homeless people, otherwise they question or disbelieve that they are homeless at all. Being unwashed, unshaven and wearing stereotypically travelleresque garb is part of this expected image. Clean shirts and white trainers are a no-no. The worse I dressed, the more (Big) Issues I sold and I know others, including Jo, Dave and Pepsi, have found the same. The public wants scruff, but when it gets it, it recoils.

Myth 2: All homeless people are junkies, crack addicts or alcoholics

I asked Jo if she ever did heroin when she was on the street.

“Na, but people used to drop stuff in the hat when I was begging. Someone dropped some Valium once.”

Some of the homeless who are addicted to hard drugs such as heroin, crack and alcohol often seem ‘out of it’, are ruder, pushier and sometimes abusive when asking for money. It is this kind of behaviour that gets noticed, not the quiet, polite people just trying to scrape their next meal together. This behaviour doesn’t just extend to the public either. There’s a rule on the street: Don’t beg off a beggar. It’s etiquette. The few people that breach it tend to be the ones who are quite far along the path of addiction. It’s important to point out that —though there are an awful lot of addicts who are homeless— many homeless people do not even use drugs. moreover, stereotyping to the contrary leads to a lot of negative and abusive behaviour towards them.

Myth 3: It’s their own fault homeless people are on the street

This blanket assumption is what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error, which, put simply, means that we attribute our own errors to external factors others’ errors to internal factors. It’s never our fault, but it is theirs. Granted, with some people it is; for Jo her relationship with her parents became irreconcilable as a result of “teenage stupidity and stubbornness” and there are people who get into drugs and lose their homes for not paying the rent, but since the recession —and before that when industrial and unskilled work started being outsourced abroad—  jobs have been evaporating. [Not to mention the people whose home life is abusive and they have no where left to turn]. This leads to a vicious circle: no job = no address, no address = no job. It’s worth remembering that next time you hear someone shout ‘get a job’ at busker, beggar or Big Issue seller.

This is another point of contention. Selling the Big Issue is not begging. A product, bought at wholesale price, is being retailed. There is an exchange. Indeed, standing on the high street prey to people’s contemptuous, pitying looks and occasional abuse is not an easy job. Being a Big Issue seller can make you a sitting duck. They know where to find you and they know that no one is going to come looking for you. The murder of Westbourne vendor Ralph Millward last year is testament to that.

Some people, however, choose homelessness. Pepsi and her boyfriend have been vending the Issue for a couple of years in Bournemouth centre. She said, “I did get a flat a while ago, but I felt trapped in, so I left. I like the open air and I earn my own way selling this so I don’t see the problem.” Life on the street is different for everyone, it can be both unbearable and enjoyable and often alternates between the two. Dave, 22, said he found it “Cold. It was October so it was getting chilly, but it wasn’t so bad, in a way, because I always managed for food and money. I used to teach people to juggle and then ask them for a tip. Got £20 once.”

Myth 4: Homeless people are lost causes

Sometimes this is true. A man on the street at the same time as me, Zeb, had collapsed most of the veins in his body through injecting heroin into them and had resorted to his jugular, which is, in the long-term, fatal. Zeb hasn’t been seen for years, but his companion has. Thirteen years later he is still begging,   still hooked and still lying about it.

But it doesn’t always have to be that way, not for everyone. I was on the street for eight months, Jo for six. I built a career in retail before going to university, Jo has been a happy employee of the post office depot for nine years. A man I knew, Mac, was on the street for years selling the Issue between Bournemouth and Ebbw Vale (in Wales) and is now the manager of a fishing shop. There are success stories from the street.

Zoe and Carly, who both work in shops in the town centre, have different opinions of the homeless than many. Carly said, “I seem to befriend a lot of homeless people. The homelessness problem here is horrendous when you consider how many empty buildings we have.”

Zoe said, “I think homelessness is often just where people have slipped through the net and need some help to get back on their feet and that’s something we can all do, even if it’s just to smile instead of looking away.”

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  • Comments (2)
  1. Hi, I write a blog about professional busking and I am curious why you use the term busker in here related to begging and homelessness. I am asking because the term busking is most used for street performers. Thank you in advance for clarification!!

      • g.
      • July 19th, 2012

      No problem! I use the term busking in this context because a lot of us used to busk with guitars, fiddles or penny whistles (or perform with diablo or juggle, etc.) as opposed to just begging for money and doing nothing for it. I busked for a couple of months before my guitar strings snapped (it was October), then I begged for a few days, then I started selling the Big Issue. Hope that helps! Feel free to ask if you need any further clarification :):-

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