Often when I walk the streets of Derby, I ask myself this question. It’s not because I’m feeling isolated and alone – I’m incredibly blessed with a brilliant support network – but because it doesn’t take me (or anyone) else long to find another soul gracing our city’s streets seemingly without anyone to prop them up in their time of need.

The sight of a cold, often wet and fragile human being sleeping outside is far from uncommon in Derby city centre; just as it is in any other city. Indeed, the regularity with which one sees homeless human beings in our town can erode what should be a shocking sight for a caring, civilised community.

I may be wrong, but I’m going to take an educated guess and posit that this sense of remoteness from a life which is much different to mine is not unique to me. Not everyone interacts or sees a need to engage with those who sleep rough (not that anyone’s obliged to do so), because engaging with someone who’s life is drastically opposite to yours is tough. It’s much easier to walk on, to forget, to avoid.

The sentiment above brings to mind a moving speech David Foster Wallace gave to arts graduates in 2005. He began his address – entitled This Is Water – by describing two fish swimming:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”…”

I shouldn’t imagine the sight of Derby’s homeless would immediately bring you to think of swimming fish, but perhaps it should. As Foster Wallace notes, “…the immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”

So what is our obvious, ubiquitous and important reality? It is that across England there are over 4,000 people sleeping rough on any one night (Homeless Link, 2017).

At the time of writing, there were no accurate figures available for those specifically without shelter in Derby. It’s a notoriously difficult business to collate figures on individuals who are, by necessity, exceedingly nomadic – but it has been suggested that the East Midlands saw a 23% rise in rough sleeping during 2016 (Homeless Link). Suffice to say, that it would be particularly surprising if Derby bucked this regional trend, given that there was an almost total cut in funding for the homeless in the city in April 2013 (Derby Telegraph).

There’s a popular anecdotal experience many Derbeians like to share about St Peter’s Street; namely that it’s a near no-go area due – in part – to the volume of begging that colloquially appears to happen in the area. The momentary irritation that begging can encourage is commonly felt, so commonly felt that for some our collective lack of understanding towards those in need risks becoming a default setting.

Luckily for us, there are those out there who do offer a hand in supporting those in need. They are there when – perhaps – we, collectively, are not.

In Derby, The Padley Centre is possibly the most well-known institution caring for the homeless. Padley is joined by Derby City Mission, who’s own cause was massively assisted by a recent fundraising ultra-endurance challenge that we drew attention to a few issues ago.

As great as it is to see these institutions tackle an issue that’s widely ignored, the existence of their support cannot be relied upon as if it will always be there. That will simply never be the case.
Find that difficult to believe? Well, in May The Padley Centre’s continued operation was revealed to be under threat. The centre recently took to its Facebook page to ask for help:

“The Homeless, vulnerable and destitute of Derby desperately need your help. Padley faces the real possibility of closing it’s doors after losing its government funding. We are doing everything we can to raise as much money as possible but we need your help by becoming one of the Padley4000 and donating as little as £2 per month.”

Without the support offered by groups like Padley, society’s most vulnerable individuals could be left truly alone. Not just ignored by uninterested and irritated passers-by, but left out in the cold because the people who have offered an olive branch no longer have one to give.

I’d like to think that as a city, we could start working to avoid reflecting another of David Foster Wallace’s observations:

“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

“We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”

Perhaps when you consider this notion, you might consider your own default setting. Do you offer an olive branch, however small, to those people the Padley Centre supports? Or, like me, do you all too often operate under the assumption that you are the centre of the world?