The initiative aims to take advantage of UCL’s world-class research expertise in order to encourage “collaborative and effective” work on the issue.
It will come as no surprise to any UCL student that every graph indicating the number of rough sleepers in London in the past decade represents a diagonal line shooting skywards. Between July and September last year, over 3000 people were found sleeping rough in London – a record figure that the charity Crisis condemned as “appalling”. Those still denying the gravity of the city’s current problem are either not looking, or perhaps don’t want to.
On a student budget, this crisis can understandably feel out of control. However, a new initiative launched in February is giving students the chance to make a tangible difference without giving a significant amount of cash. USAAH, the UCL Student Action Against Homelessness Society, aims to “combine students’ compassion with UCL’s research expertise” by forming an interdisciplinary body of academics and students to work together on the problem.
Velvet Dibley, an MA English Linguistics student, co-founded the society after becoming aware of how easy it was to become “desensitised” to the issue: “I realised that this was likely to be a product of feeling unable to help the homeless community as opposed to a lack of compassion.
“Our Student Attitudes towards Homelessness survey revealed that a large majority of students were not aware of the ways they could get involved to combat homelessness, and so those who we have spoken to have welcomed our idea to allow UCL students to take responsibility for their community.”
Whilst USAAH is not the first student-led homelessness initiative at UCL, their plan to facilitate and encourage university research represents an innovative approach to tackling the issue. Molly Massey, who co-founded the initiative alongside Velvet, identifies a problem with “departments working separately on the issues”, and hopes that “by starting the discussion between them, research will be more collaborative and effective”.
The society will organise panel discussions and debates with academics and charity workers, and anticipates that the number of students attending these events will encourage more research within the university. Velvet wants to bring in speakers with a range of knowledge on the various pernicious dimensions of homelessness, including but not limited to “the psychological impact, the physical impacts of rough sleeping on health, or the provision of affordable and social housing”.
Despite the research-focused angle, the society will still charge a small affordable fee for their events, all of which will go to their chosen partner, Shelter From The Storm. The charity provides a free emergency shelter as well as bed, dinner and breakfast for 42 homeless people every night of the year. It has successfully supported 173 guests into accommodation and helped 90 guests into stable employment within the last twelve months alone.
“We chose this charity because we feel it echoes our society’s mission of long-term, sustainable solutions towards homelessness as opposed to short term relief”, Molly said. “As a small charity that is run purely off the back of donations, we look forward to any money that we raise as a society facilitating the work that they are doing.”
Going it alone: the story of Friends Outside
USAAH’s focus on research and discussion means they can be granted Union support. However, some student-led initiatives working more directly with homeless people don’t qualify because the Union cannot guarantee their safety. Launched in November, Friends Outside is an unaffiliated student-led project aiming to “discredit stigmas surrounding the homeless through encouraging conversations between students and homeless people”.
Every Thursday evening, team members from Friends Outside meet with students who have signed up to walk around UCL’s campus and speak to the homeless. The conversations usually centre around how they are coping with staying out, how they came to be homeless, and what students could do to help.
Yap Jia Hui and Giulia Paxton, the two students who founded the project, hope that “by leading students to take the initiative to stop by a homeless person when they see one, we can show them that approaching a rough sleeper is not as scary as many perceive”.
“Learning about their circumstances also allows students to have a better understanding of the reasons for homelessness”, Jia Hui said. “This would hopefully break down the impressions that all rough sleepers are drug addicts, incompetent, or lazy.”
Friends Outside has already recorded many success stories, but one of Jia Hui’s favourites involved a rough sleeper named Andy. Found outside Holborn station, Andy was a former piano teacher who had been struggling with mental illness for months and as a result found himself on the streets. After a long conversation with the Friends Outside team, Andy was given a portable charger and trusted the students to keep some important documents safe with them.
Since their first chat, Jia Hui and her team have been meeting up regularly with Andy for breakfast and sometimes piano sessions. She outlined his progress since their first meeting, saying: “It’s really worked for him in terms of morale and encouragement. Right now, he is filling in as part time teacher for schools but we are working with him to help him back on his way of becoming a private music tutor. With our little skills, we are currently helping him design flyers and name cards to promote his music class.”
Andy’s story is testament to the extraordinary power of cash-free goodwill that both Friends Outside and USAAH are founded upon. Loaning a phone charger for the night and giving up half an hour for a conversation has helped many rough sleepers in a way that a five pound note could never. If you are interested in getting involved, you can find both societies on Facebook (USAAH and Friends Outside) where they will post about upcoming events and weekly outreach schedules.