07/10/2014 10:30 BST | Updated 06/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Sleeping Rough in the Age of Austerity

While the broader policy of economic hack and slash has created the conditions for a sharp increase in the level of homelessness, stigmatization of homeless people themselves effectively helps shift the focus from the political sphere...

Its 10.00 on a Friday night, and in Enfield Town's main high street, night time revellers are flitting from the kebab shops to the pubs to the restaurants, and the whole parade is ablaze with light. We watch them from where we are gathered - a small shadowy green nestled out behind a church. There are around 60 of us who are participating in tonight's sleep out; set up by the organisation All People All Places - the event is designed to help promote awareness of the plight of homelessness, and to raise money for the construction of a shelter in this area of North London.

The people gathered here are from all walks of life - we have counsellors, nurses, teachers, social workers, and even a celebrity - the actor Rudolph Walker OBE - star of Eastenders, Love They Neighbour and a plethora of film titles - but known also for his work with disadvantaged youth. The atmosphere is positive, and yet this is undercut by a certain sense of wonder. Lyn, a teacher, already wrapped up in her sleeping bag, is tapping away on her mobile phone, contacting people back home. 'Imagine not having these things' - she says incredulously gazing at her phone. 'Imagine you can't go home to your bed tomorrow night and that...' she moves her hand in a gesture of helplessness - 'this was your future, night after night. I couldn't take it. I would feel so helpless, so vulnerable.'

Perhaps that is what an event like this teaches you. One night sleeping rough is never going to impart the sense of misery and fear which genuine homelessness entails. But it does give you a new found respect for the things you usually just take for granted. A warm bed. Four walls and a roof. The basic shelter from the elements. The awareness that you won't be rained on in bucket loads, or frozen by bitter winds, or abused and attacked while you sleep. Some of the people taking part in the event have experienced homelessness themselves. Ashton - an articulate young man who is one of the biggest Harry Potter fans I have ever met, recalls the time he spent on the streets - 'the worst thing was not having a space to call your own, never knowing where you were going to spend the night.'

And yet these kind of sentiments are a far cry from the more common and mainstream narrative. You know the kind of thing - homeless people are feckless and work-shy, they have made a conscious decision to become vagrants in order to buck the system. Stories proliferate about beggars on the make; those who pull in hundreds of pounds a day, leeching on the decency and credulity of 'normal' people.

In reality, however, such cynical apocrypha serves a very practical purpose; it helps demonize some of the most vulnerable in our society, and thus allows us to remain indifferent and undisturbed by their plight. In actual fact being made homeless can often have devastating consequences for the person who experiences it. A recent study reveals you are 12% more likely to develop a long term physical health problem, while the chances of developing a mental health issue are almost double that of the general population. Unsurprisingly, the level of depression among homeless people is over 10 times that of the population more broadly.

And yet, despite this, the politics of the twenty-first century have inculcated a colder and more punitive attitude to those who find themselves without a home. This began under New Labour - which made begging a recordable offence in 2003. More recently York council launched an offensive against beggars; a campaign which peddled the same tired dogma that the people on the street asking for money do so for nefarious and cynical purposes rather than any genuine human need.

But the cycle of condemnation - and even outright harassment - of homeless people should also be comprehended according to the broader political logic of austerity. Spending cuts have resulted in a 10% decline of the number of beds available in homeless hostels while legislation like the 2011 Localism Act and the 2012 Welfare Reform Act has drastically curtailed the support available for those who are most desperate for housing. In total housing benefit has been slashed by some 7 billion pounds. Naturally this has seen a hike in the number of people who have found themselves out on the streets. The Department for Communities and Local Government recently estimated that the numbers of people sleeping rough on a given night last year in England - had risen 36% since 2010.

And so, while the broader policy of economic hack and slash has created the conditions for a sharp increase in the level of homelessness, stigmatization of homeless people themselves effectively helps shift the focus from the political sphere - narrowing it down to the moral 'culpability' of the individual homeless person. In such a narrative the larger political forces are rendered invisible, replaced by spiteful morality tales that centre around sinister, dissolute figures lurking in the shadows, figures who remain outside the remit of civilized expectations and norms.

And that is why a grass roots initiative like The Big Sponsored Sleep Out is significant - not only has it helped raise money for the building of a winter shelter (£11 000 and counting) but it also connects people from across the board and puts us in touch with a more everyday truth - that is, the people who find themselves sleeping rough are not unusual or different and have a set of life stories not so dissimilar to our own. And despite the cold and the dark, on the night itself, there remains a certain optimism in the air. As Sarah Edoo - a project co-ordinator for Enfield Youth Engagement Panel and a key organiser of the event - says - 'there is a real sense of unity tonight which is lovely and a feeling that can't be explained of us all coming together'.