Homelessness has become a staple of the London life. On park benches, high street pavements, by the stations and on the Tube. We are accustomed to looking away, keeping our gazes fixed pointedly elsewhere. It’s very hard to look a homeless person in the eye and not feel something.
But as a city we are conscious that it’s something which is growing, and at a fast pace. A recent report unearthed a record number of people sleeping rough in London, with figures showing over 3,000 people falling in this state in London between July and September this year. This was believed to be the first time homelessness had exceeded 3,000 in a three-month period.
Homelessness is a national disaster and one that can be attributed to the effects of austerity. Data last year revealed rough sleeping in England had been rising for seven years, with a 15% rise between 2016 and 2017. The figures underlined London as being in the eye of the storm when it came to austerity’s worst effects, where homelessness had risen by 18%. The main takeaway however was that it had risen by 169% since 2010, incidentally when the Coalition government came into power. A combination of low wages, high rents, lack of affordable housing and brutal cuts to welfare have contributed to creating chronic insecurity at the bottom.
Understanding the worrying surge in homelessness requires us to appreciate the depth of disdain the Conservative Party have for the social institutions in Britain; the powerful communal concepts like council housing, public healthcare and the welfare state. Much is often made of Margaret Thatcher’s comment regarding the concept of society being a false one. Sometimes the temptation of those offering counteracting solutions is to completely dilute the meaning of the individual, yet it’s unquestionable that rank individualism has defined the Tories’ record in power. There is a lack of human decency and compassion in their policies, a contempt for the poor, for the working-class communities left in a state of painful decay after Thatcher battered the trade unions and many blue-collar industries.
Many of today’s homeless will have had degrees, jobs and aspirations. But the sheer weight of the material struggle in an atomised society where help comes in the shape of charities rather than social security means the odds will always be stacked against them. There is threadbare security at the bottom, where any bad turn of events can cause someone to slide towards being homeless themselves, with no controls on rents, no job security for those on zero hour contracts, no living wages.
When a majority of impoverished families are working households or when a million families depend on food banks, then it becomes less difficult to see just why homelessness has become a big a problem as it has. Austerity has been about the poor paying for the mistakes of the wealthy for years and those who are homeless have paid the most. In London, the chances of going overboard and losing everything is always high. The opportunities here are limitless but so are the risks. Take Tower Hamlets as the chief encapsulation of the city’s wonderful prosperity but failure to share it fairly. Here, the financial district exists but so does extreme poverty. High inequality is the unspoken story of London and many of those who cannot cope with the city’s suffocating pressures end up on the streets.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies found that 40% of Londoners’ incomes were being consumed by rent. There is little security in the private rent sector, less so if your job pays poorly or goes. The winners in this crisis are landlords who, according to a Savills report published earlier in October, were benefiting from the steep rise in people renting, due to the housing crisis, and being able to charge high rents. The latter often leads to landlords being subsidised by the welfare state due to the housing benefits which many renters need to get by.
There is a tendency to sometimes disconnect issues from the wider political narratives pumped out by those in power, to treat it as isolated incidents, but the awful plight of the homeless in London is a sign of how the Tories have looked at the poor.