A couple of weeks ago I posted about Habitat for Humanity and the horribly ill-conceived “Shack Attack” they held in Tunbridge Wells, observing that events like these diminish the plight of the homeless to the level of an It’s a Knockout Challenge. Imagine my feelings, then, when my son, Ben, came home from Explorers last week with a letter and permission slip regarding a similar event his troop is undertaking as part of the Explorers’ International Award.
Now to be honest I don’t have anywhere near as much of a problem with scouts and explorers – or schoolkids generally – doing this kind of thing, because I think that young minds need incentivising and encouragement to develop the social awareness and empathy that adults, with their wider experience, should possess naturally, but I still think the idea of a Tramp Out is inherently patronising. It’s like asking someone to skip lunch so they can appreciate starvation or – as has sadly happened to me at several training events for care professionals – putting blindfolds and noise-cancelling headphones on people so they can ‘experience’ disability.
The truth is, of course, that you can’t experience somebody else’s life simply by pretending to be like them or to live like them for one day, but increasingly this is a tactic that charities are using to try to get people to donate. The problem with that – apart from the issue of patronisation I’ve already raised – is that it plugs straight into the negative victim associations that have underpinned charity fundraising for decades and reinvents them, asking us to compare the ‘misery’ of other people’s lives with our own and to cough up donations on the basis of pity and a sense of there but for the grace of god… And that’s wrong on many levels; not the least of them being that god (or luck, or karma or whatever else one might happen to believe in) generally has very little to do with the things that make people’s lives difficult while negative value judgements and social politics that label people ‘pitiful’ often do. Even more damaging are the secondary judgements that follow; the ones that sub-divide the pitiful into the worthy and unworthy (‘Good AIDS and Bad AIDS’, as Brass Eye so brilliantly put it on TV several years ago) and bestow gifts of charity and support accordingly.
Personally, I can’t imagine what it must be like to sleep rough night after night in all weathers or imagine the circumstances that might lead or force someone to do so. Obviously there are many factors (alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic abuse, mental health issues……) that can contribute, but in focussing on these it’s perhaps too easy to confuse cause and effect, giving rise to further assumptions and the prejudices that arise from them. Certainly alcoholism and drug addiction are often assumed to be self-induced problems, and prejudices based on that assumption undoubtedly influence the way society responds to those problems. But look beyond those prejudices and there are millions who enjoy recreational drinking and recreational drug taking without becoming alcoholics or drug addicts, and the answer can’t be something as simple as ‘will power’ or self-control, can it. (Note there’s no question mark there: It’s not a question, it’s a statement.)
And what of those people who do become addicts but are rich enough and/or indulged enough to accommodate that addiction? Rather than being negatively judged their excesses are often applauded, with the likes of Keith Richard and Ozzy Osbourne held up as cultural icons while the back catalogues of those who choke to death on their own vomit go platinum overnight. Not much ‘but for the grace of god’ there, is there? Well, unless your gods of choice happen to be money and celebrity, of course.
As I said, I can’t imagine what circumstances might lead or force someone to sleep rough night after night, but I can empathise enough to understand that it’s almost certainly not a lifestyle choice, and that if it is it is probably one that appears, at the outset, to be the lesser of two evils. We need to think about those bigger evils before we cast judgement, looking beyond the effect to the causes and re-evaluating our own prejudices accordingly.
My guess is that building warm shelters with a team of mates and sleeping in them overnight won’t lead anyone to that kind of understanding regardless of how much money is raised, but I hope for young kids – whether they’re Explorers or not – it can be a start. If we can get the message across to enough of them early enough (“Give me a child until the age of seven…” a clever Jesuit once said) we might just end up in a couple of generations time with a better society and a better world. I hope so, because you and I, dear reader, if we’re still about at all, will be old codgers by then, and the prospects for the elderly aren’t looking very pretty at this stage of the game…
Oh, PS: The charity Ben’s camping out for is called Shelterbox, and they’re a relief charity providing shelter, supplies, medical equipment etc ‘wherever disaster strikes’. Sounds like a good one to me, so I’ll definitely bung an extra donation in with Ben’s camp donation, even though I’m not going to get an excuse for a novelty night out with my mates as a reward or my face in the local paper. That’s, as Mr Punch might say (quick, pass me my swozzle!), the way to do it!
IN OTHER NEWS: If today’s blog seems a bit slapdash that’s because it is. I’m off out in a little while to watch some comedy and haven’t got time to finish it or to polish it. I may do so tomorrow, but don’t hold your breath. In the meantime I will almost certainly be drinking a few recreational beers tonight, which are but practice for the main event at the weekend, when I will be drinking several pints of whisky in the hope that experiencing being pissed as a fart for forty eight hours will give me greater insight into what it means to be an alcoholic. I wonder if I should ask Ben to join me as a warm-up for his Tramp Camp next month? What? That’s disgusting you say? Ohhhhhhhh, the irony…