The role of compassion and ‘Tough Love’ in caring for and supporting the homeless

Guest author Robin Wynyard reflects on an article on the role of ‘tough love’ in supporting people who are homeless, published in the Journal of Compassionate Health Care. He relates the article to a visit he made to the charity ‘Catching Lives’ and his own personal experiences with homelessness.

Several things recently made me want to return to and re-read Jon Limebury and Sue Shea’s excellent article The role of compassion and ‘Tough Love’ in caring for and supporting the homeless: experiences from ‘Catching Lives’ Canterbury UK.

The first of these was a new report by homelessness charity St. Mungo’s which found that 129 rough sleepers died in London since 2010. The report highlighted how people who turn to councils for help are often being sent away without support or instructed to sleep rough in order to access services.

At first I was horrified by the lack of humanity exhibited by this injunction to sleep rough. I started thinking about the notion of ‘Tough Love’ as dealt with in the Limebury and Shea article. This is an interesting idea dealt with sensitively by the article’s authors. They refer to ‘tough love’ as a “sometimes stern approach where the intention is to help the individual in the longer term-thus reflecting genuine feelings of care and concern for the individual”.

The charity works with their clients to get access to suitable accommodation and find the motivation to take steps towards personal recovery and independent living.

The philosophy behind ‘Catching Lives’ as an independent local charity is a “need for homeless individuals to move away from a chaotic lifestyle” and as stated in the article “the charity works with their clients to get access to suitable accommodation and find the motivation to take steps towards personal recovery and independent living”. This seems a crucial point in the debate on homelessness where the vast majority of the homeless are in this situation through no fault of their own.

I visited the charity ‘Catching Lives’ and was greatly impressed by the work that they do embodying the notion of ‘tough love’ which is central to Limebury and Shea’s thought concerning attitudes towards homelessness. Both of the article authors are very familiar with the work of the charity ‘Catching Lives’, an independent charity “dedicated to supporting the homeless and vulnerably housed in and around Canterbury UK.”

A second reason for ‘visiting’ homelessness was a more personal one, and one which the article made me think about regarding an incident close to my life. A long time ago I was close to becoming homeless myself, as the article states “relationship breakdown is one of the major causes of homelessness.

Faced with a rapidly deteriorating home situation with children involved, I started heavy drinking, became mentally unstable and was about to leave home to live on the streets this being what I saw as the only option available to me. It came very close but fortunately it never got that far. But “anxiety and depression” mentioned in the article were there and continued for a long time afterwards.

(I) was about to leave home to live on the streets this being what I saw as the only option available to me.

Help came in the form of my parents who took me in, not an ideal solution, but as ‘tough love’ indicates the motivation is to get the person back on their feet. As I look back now to the actions of my now deceased parents perhaps I wasn’t as grateful as I should have been and failed to realize what the article says “that kindness and touch alter the heart rhythm and brain function in both the person providing compassion and the person receiving it.”

A third reason for me why the Limebury and Shea article is so important is of a more literary nature. Bringing back painful personal memories is not the easiest thing to do, but I really feel that sometimes something is needed to aid a paradigm shift in how people think about things like homelessness.

Limebury and Shea’s article helped provide the catalyst in my thought change, and I proceeded to listen to Ralph McTell’s very moving 1969 song Streets of London about which one cannot fail to be moved by. The song is about McTell’s observations of the homeless in both Paris and London. The song is well known, especially the chorus, which is about fear loneliness and depression.

I then re-read George Orwell’s 1933 classic Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell was forced to sleep rough on the streets of London, which in those days must have been unbearable.

This experience led Orwell to no longer judge vagrants or think that they’re not “working” when he saw them standing around waiting for the shelters to open. He gained a great respect for people who can see through their trials and be happy anyway. And he doesn’t expect beggars to be grateful when he gives them a penny. In his own words from the book:

“I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny” (Orwell, 1933).

I am very grateful for the insights that Limebury and Shea’s article has given me regarding the nature of homelessness. Articles such as this and work by charities such as ‘Catching Lives’ can do much in terms of raising the important issue of a compassionate approach to homelessness.

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