Under the Arches #4 – 'One of them'

2nd May 2024

In our book '14 nights', I told the story of the woman looking through bins for tab ends to get tobacco. When she saw someone looking at her and sensed their judgement, she shouted at them using very impolite language. My guess was that in shouting out she confirmed that person’s view that she was ‘one of them’, whatever derogatory label that might be.

I repeatedly hear people accessing our centre using the language of shame. Today I spoke to somebody who told of being in a shop, “I thought they could see I was homeless and were following me round”. He was wrong, there had been nothing to fear. But he knew he was homeless and he carried the expectation of being shamed.

Shame is a toxic emotion. There are times when it serves a purpose, but more frequently it is because we feel judged. People who are homeless can often feel as if they are on the bad, wrong and failing end of life and are seen as ‘one of them’.


I noticed the phrase ‘one of them’ being used by some professionals who worked in homeless services. I was once on the phone, describing a homeless person I was working with – I heard their individuality and unique personality being stripped from them as the person on the other end of the phone said, “I know, it’s one of them, we’ve dealt with that before.” Afterwards I was annoyed because I hadn’t challenged it.

Language is important and this language highlights a negative difference. The thought – conscious or not – of ‘That person is different from me, and not in a good way.’ It’s the root of stereotypes. We know what homeless people look like, don’t we? We know the behaviours homeless people display, don’t we?


I have two problems with this. Firstly, the stereotype doesn’t work. One Saturday I was in a High Street store and saw someone, who I knew was a rough sleeper, wandering through the aisles. He looked clean and tidy, he was minding his own business. He was using the store to kill time and stay warm. I thought to myself that the last thing he needed at that moment was someone like me, a visual reminder that he was homeless, so I walked away and left him to it. At night, when he was bedding down, he would feel and remember that he was ‘one of them’. I think this is true for the majority of homeless people.


Secondly, I don’t think the language of ‘negative difference’ achieves anything. It doesn’t build inclusion or change lives because it doesn’t accept people, it doesn’t value people. Take the conversation I had with Jeremy*. He had been involved with drugs and committed violent crime. He’d served time in prison and his face carried the visible scars of his battles. He wanted to change, as so many do, but he knew that many believed he couldn’t. And that’s the critical point. Whilst ever he remains labelled by that part of his past, by being ‘one of them’, the space for change remains very small. At The Archer Project, and in similar services, we want to make the space for change as large as possible. So, we welcome and accept, and we offer the chance to participate and be included.


Afterall, Jeremy didn’t have the advantages of a trouble-free start to life. Neither did the woman searching through the bins. In fact, most of ‘them’ had particularly difficult and troubled starts to life where those negative behaviours developed, first and foremost, as survival behaviours. But the past isn’t visible as we walk on by. We see different things and that’s really the point of this blog.

Can we stop ourselves from those quick judgements to realise that we need to change the way we think about homelessness? There isn’t a single image which represents all those unfortunate enough to experience homelessness.

The person we pass and assume to be homeless isn’t there because they have made particularly selfish or bad decisions, or wasted opportunities, or made their own bad fortune. They are there because that was the best way at the time to survive.

But that doesn’t have to be the end of their story.


*Name changed to protect identity.


Written by Tim Renshaw, CEO of The Archer Project.

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