Finding a home for stories of rough sleepers

Bear with me while I relate two unconnected but similar incidents. A few months ago I was chatting with a friend at his garden gate. We were approached by a young man who was living rough under a nearby bridge. He wanted to know if we had seen any suspicious behaviour and in a surreal exchange told it was his job to keep the police informed. He left us with a cheery wave as he had similar work to do as he moved on.  Two days later his body was pulled from the river.

More recently I was visiting the place where I grew up and walking through an underpass came across a man who was obviously living there. I gave him money, he mumbled his thanks and I walked away. With a matter of days his body was found at that spot and his death is now the subject of a murder inquiry.

Why, you might well ask, do I write about this (except perhaps as a warning to rough sleepers to avoid any eye contact or conversation) as I pass them by?  I’ve been asking myself why these two men that I met for only a few fleeting minutes are lodged in my head and why they spring to mind each time – and there are too many times – I see a rough sleeper in Birmingham as I walk into work from New Street Station.

I think the answer is that as a journalist I wonder how we portray men (and women) like these. For a start how do we refer to them? The terms homeless, rough sleeper and beggar each have their own connotations. More importantly do we reflect their stories at all? Yes we talk about the number of rough sleepers, yes we talk about the problem of homelessness but do we really give our audiences any real insight into what being on the streets means for an individual.

Of course, every homeless person is as different from every other as each is from you or me but allowing some individuals to speak would make that point eloquently and present homeless people as opposed to ‘the homeless’.

As a teacher of young people trying to make their way in broadcast news I am keen that they should appreciate the diversity of the places and the people they will report on. I’m also aware of the risks that could be involved in inexperienced reporters shoving a microphone in the face of someone living rough.

There are many good examples of sensitive reporting around people who are disadvantaged and I want my students to learn from them. I’m also keen that they get to bring some journalistic skill to bear in bringing the stories of homeless people to a wider audience before those people become the subjects of a new strain of reality TV of the ‘Benefits Street’, ‘Life on the Dole’ type.