By Jos Bell – Chair of the London Socialist Health Association and Health & Wellbeing lead for the Fabian Women’s Network
When the chill of the pavement can be felt underneath our booted feet or the harsh winter wind whistles through our thick coats and well wound scarves, we are glad to be home at the end of each day. We can ditch the daytime clothes and kick back on the sofa with a comforting drink of whatever we fancy, be it a nice cup of tea or something stronger and dig into some form of electronic entertainment or extended working until it’s time to find our way to a welcoming duvet and downy pillows, finally snoozing through to the time when the alarm heralds a new day. Give or take, that’s a generally accepted form of standard human behaviour circa 2016.
Yet, beneath that veneer of normality, something is shifting – and quite drastically.
For the first time since Thatcher rested her shampoo and set on a Downing Street pillow – just minutes away from Cardboard City, a government-manufactured crisis in housing supply and unaffordability, coupled with stringent benefit sanctions and drastic cuts – has seen a massive increase in the numbers of rough sleepers.
At a minimum, up 55% in England in the 5 years to Feb 2015 and then a massive leap of another 30% in one year – with more than 25% of rough sleepers gravitating towards London and not including the hidden homeless of sofa surfers who are largely undocumented.
This morning, North Westminster MP Karen Buck tweeted about a case at her advice surgery where a woman – fully 9 months pregnant – had been declared intentionally homeless by Westminster Council. How much worse could that be?
On New Year’s Eve and on a couple of other evenings since, I spent a few hours walking London’s streets with the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness, offering emergency supplies to the folks huddled under faceless sleeping bags and helping to identify those at greatest risk who have nothing to cover themselves against the bitter chill. The Met were friendly to us and thankful for our presence.
As the New Year fireworks burst into the midnight sky behind barriers so high that we would need a crane to peer over them, doorway upon doorway of rough sleepers could be seen up and down the Strand – just as we have found since in the weekly rounds in King’s Cross.
This inglorious legacy of Boris includes the precarious lives of these people…
The middle aged man barely conscious, wrapped in thin summer duvets on a bitter January night who literally devoured a tub of hot rice as if his life depended upon it – because it did. The couple who sleep down a side street, rugs and duvet folded into a makeshift bed, shielded by their bags – unable to meet the rent on their flat and with nowhere else to go. The young woman dressed in black, rocking gently, bags scattered around her, sitting on the pavement, the street side of a window of designer clothes – staring fixedly ahead as she mumbles about the life she had before.
The reasons for the crisis are complex, but so obvious – beginning with Thatcher’s great social housing sell off – now part of the Buy to Let glut – soon to be compounded by the insidious 2016 Housing & Planning Bill, moving on through a lack of replacement home building – mostly just high end new builds bought up by overseas investors with poor doors for so-called affordables. Then the shocking level of cuts to homeless charities and refuges, coupled with policies such as the cruel and callous bedroom tax and the benefits cap – forcing people who had previously been just about managing, onto the street.
At the same time, unaffordable private rental landlords are hoovering up great dollops of housing benefit, the tenants getting the blame for the massive increase in the benefits bill, rather than the government’s mismanagement of our housing policy. Tenants who can’t keep up with rent rises then add to rough sleeping numbers and in Tory eyes become just another statistic.
We all know that by the time a topic hits the Newsnight screen it’s pretty much become a mainstream issue. As last night’s piece by Dave Young showed ( 33 minutes in), turn round any city centre street corner, peer into a darkened shop doorway and there’s every chance you’ll see a huddled figure with little or nothing to keep them warm.
The homeless subjects describe their situation as, “lonely, cold and hopeless…on a day to day basis….we can’t even sleep at night.We have to be out here for 6 months before we can think of going on a housing list…. yet shelters are time limited. 96 of us known about in Bristol – and new faces coming in everyday, all with that scared look on their faces.”
With rents rocketing (and not just in London ) the Catch 22 of homelessness keeps many in a subterranean world. No address, no job, no local connection. No access to the housing list. At the same time, not all rough sleepers are without work – the interviewees included a student and various workers.
Another interviewee says: “In the winter shelter which is open 8pm – 8.00am, we get hot food morning and night and a bed, but there are no cooking facilities or clothes storage so we have to take everything with us. I have to take all my luggage to work. I’m really tired with bad feet… I can’t afford proper shoes.”
Human beings are not tortoises – we should not be expected to carry our homes on our back. Life can bring forth the unexpected – no one can second guess what’s around the corner. One rough sleeper says, “My barge caught fire and I lost everything”. Others are fleeing domestic violence – their homelessness the result of so many refuges having been taken out by funding cuts.
The difference between those who are well versed to a life on the streets and those who have stumbled their way into this predicament is marked – but the people we meet are all in need of help in various complex ways. Whether it be the elderly woman with a trolley bearing a multitude of bags of carefully organised possessions, or a man slumped on the hard ground, so high on a substance to block out his fear, that he doesn’t notice the night chill biting at his cold blue feet, food and warm clothes are a clear priority. That’s the easy bit.
We know the average lifespan for those living on the streets is just 47. Many already have health conditions which may have in part caused this descent, but would be treatable and curable inside a home.
One thing is for sure: no health condition was ever improved by street living. Many rough sleepers are already suffering untreated mental health conditions, then coupled with malnutrition the impact of drugs and alcohol, the impacts of abuse, an increase in TB, conditions new and pre-existing, crisis visits to overwhelmed A&E s are not uncommon, especially when access to GPs is now so restricted. This is a public health crisis.
So what to do? George Osborne may have proffered a measly £115mn to tackle the problem, but it really is more of a gesture than a solution. Organisations such as the excellent St Mungo’s offer superb levels of expertise which need further funding support, along with a further boost to the well regarded Foyer initiative.
The race for Mayor of London has brought forth many suggestions for the capital’s crisis – and the most constructive by far is coming from the direction of Sadiq Khan, endorsed by GLA Housing Chair (and Patron of LCEH), Tom Copley. Sadiq also seeks to address the mess that TfL has made of land management hitherto – exemplified by the disastrous Capco contract seeing the destruction of Earl’s Court.
As for the rest of the country – we need to bear in mind the risk that comes with a potential Boris PM – for one thing is certain, should he get his hands on Number 10, the destructive social engineering he has avidly pursued in London, will soon be landing somewhere near everyone else.
As Evan Davis said last night – if we do not solve this, future generations will ask of us, how did we tolerate it.