Every night it’s the same. I walk towards the station and see them, either lying by the side or trudging around. On the District Line sometimes they’ll be there, plastic cups in hand, ashamed faces. When I come out of the station, by the entrance of the station they stand, pleading expressions. After that I walk for 10 minutes and I don’t see them again. But as I pass a bus stop another person is there, asking, always. She’s been there for maybe over a year and I’m sure she recognises me.
We know who they are even if we don’t actually know who they are. They’re the faces that should shame us as a society, but we’ve normalised them as part of our existence.
Homelessness has been rising for the past several years, 4134 people sleeping outside in 2016, which is an increase of 16% from the previous year. It’s been estimated that by 2041 this will increase to more than half a million. London accounts for a lot of this, 23% of it. Numbers of homeless families in temporary accommodation has surged by 65% since 2010, whilst local authorities have accepted 15,290 households as being statutorily homeless between 1st July and 30th September of this year. 83% of homeless people tend to be men with a life expectancy of 47. In Greater Manchester it quadrupled since 2010.
The first things to remember are of course that the homeless are not just those you see on the streets. The “sofa surfers”, those finding temporary accommodation, are all without homes. And that’s almost an expected product of our economy where jobs lack the sense of permanence and security they had before.
We can speculate why they happen and those who feign pity and revulsion at homelessness but offer little in the way of policy will have their suggestions. The blame almost always seems to lie with the homeless, for being poor with money, for having alcohol or drug addiction. The chronic state of poverty that saps the bottom end of our society is almost never mentioned.
The cost of living in this country has gone up, wages stagnating, everything feeling increasingly more expensive. The feeling of being on the edge, of holding on by a fingertip, slipping away is always there, especially in a city like London. You can’t afford to lose your job, not even for a moment, not if you want to eat or have a roof over your head.
But the Tories know this and they don’t care. They believe people are poor because they’re lazy, because they can’t cook properly, because they have addiction problems. There is contempt in how they view the homeless that reflects how they view the poor. Their ideology is what capitalism left unfettered is about: class divisions, contempt for the poor and every institution that was built upon the ideas of equality. Whether it’s shredding the NHS, dismantling the welfare system, selling off council homes or cutting down local government budgets.
Even the government’s spending watchdog are aware of this, admitting that a combination of cuts to housing benefits and rise in private sector rents has hiked the amount of people made homeless. How the Tories view the welfare system directly affects everyone’s housing security. People are being driven to the streets not because of their own mismanagement of fortunes but the rising tide of austerity that has been sweeping so many people under. And it’s come from the Conservative contempt for the working-class, to writing us off as scroungers and lazy, even though most in poverty are employed and millions happen to be children. We are the food bank nation, where you can work and still be too hungry to feed yourself.
Against the tacit complicity of the government and the powerlessness of local councils, charities and community-organised ones have come together to fight. One example is the Newham based Lola’s Homeless who grew out of the despair at what was happening on their streets, leading them to recently having a Christmas fundraiser with donations given to them by a property businessman called Kam Dovedi.
It’s easy for us to think about them now we are in the Christmas season. This is the festival for generosity, for thinking of others. There’s always that nibbling sense of sadness that while we are tucked away in our warm homes with company, someone is freezing on the street alone. Perhaps we’ve seen them enough to have memorised their faces. And we are telling ourselves that when we donate a few coins or hot food that we do care that we are trying.
For most part, we’re ashamed and sometimes I’ve felt unable to look at their faces, because I don’t want to feel guilty. They’ve been dehumanised, people without faces or history. Someone who once went to school, had a job, a family but was robbed of it most likely by the inability to cope with rents and cuts to benefits. Condemned by the remorseless cruelty of this government.
Now they’re the people we pass by on our way to the stations. The people whose destitution should shame our society.