Walk around almost any town or city in Britain and you will encounter a rough sleeper, pleading for coins. You’ll probably come across a cardboard and polyester encampment too – they are pretty much ubiquitous across the country; ghostly faces peer from fragile constructions under bridges, in foul doorways and beneath church porches. Sodden blankets and damp sleeping bags offer scant protection against the bitter November winds.
The statistics are bleak: rough sleeper numbers in England rose in 2017 for the seventh consecutive year. The ‘official’ tally – the number of people likely to be out on the streets on any one night – was put at 4,751. But the real figure is likely to be far higher once the ‘hidden homeless’ – people whose homeless situation is concealed by the fact they are squatting or sofa surfing or living in extremely over-crowded accommodation – are factored in.1 On average, a homeless man dies at the age of 47 (for women it’s 43). And they are nine times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population.
It is, though, the human stories that brings the full horror of the crisis to life. While living in Blackpool two years ago, I met Gary, a 42-year-old former painter and decorator. Gary was sleeping rough in a doorway a few blocks from Blackpool’s famous promenade. He was also receiving chemotherapy for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After every session in the cancer clinic, Gary would have to sit out the ill-effects of the poison in a filthy restaurant doorway. In the evenings, he would make his way to the nearby library to wash in one of the ‘20p hotels’ – or the public toilets to you and me.
The street brought physical challenges beyond having to deal with cancer: he was regularly the victim of random outbursts of violence from drinkers who would spill out from the nearby bars and clubs in the early hours of the morning, as well as abuse from angry passers-by. Rough sleepers are far more likely to be attacked by strangers than any other members of the public. Over a third of them have been deliberately hit, kicked or had things thrown at them, while nearly one in ten has been urinated upon.
For precisely that reason, Gary had positioned himself beneath a CCTV camera: “If a camera’s there they can see anything that happens; they know what’s going on,” Gary told me. “People spitting on you, or people throwing bottles at you drunk at night… I’ve been spat on, I’ve been attacked. They just don’t see you. They just don’t believe in you.”
Blackpool had changed a great deal since it was described in 1789 as an “abode of health and amusement”2. In 2016, in Central Drive, a long undulating road that runs past Blackpool FC’s stadium, almost twice as many people were on some form of unemployment benefit as were in full-time employment. Half the children here were living in poverty. And then there was the homelessness. The number of rough sleepers in Blackpool was higher than in some London boroughs. Around 2,500 local households every year were seeking help from the council because they had either lost their accommodation or were at risk of losing it.
The situation has worsened in the intervening years, with rough sleeper numbers rising by 15% in 2017 compared with the previous year. The rise and fall in the numbers rough sleeping tends to ebb and flow with the fortunes of the wider economy, though not always. Government decisions – in this instance a reluctance to build new homes – play a part. According to the National Audit Office (NAO), the ending of private sector tenancies is now the main cause of homelessness in England. Outside of the North and the east Midlands, private sector rents have shot up by three times as much as wages in England since 2010.
The Government’s “light touch” approach to the effect of its welfare reforms has exacerbated matters. A recent investigation by The Observer found that since Universal Credit can take up to eight weeks to come through, a large number of people were in arrears before they received their first payment. They would, as a result, be turfed out of accommodation. And it’s near impossible to find another place once a private landlord has blacklisted you for non-payment of rent.
The freeze on housing benefit hasn’t helped. With private rentals unaffordable, over-stretched hostels are overburdened and are also closing their doors. According to Homeless Link, there were 16% fewer bed spaces for single homeless people in England in 2015 than there were in 2010.
People end up on the streets for all manner of reasons, though poverty is the most important driver. Gary was there because he fell through the bureaucratic cracks. Following his cancer diagnosis, he tried to kill himself. He survived, albeit with serious injuries which resulted in a long spell in hospital. He failed to submit a claim for social security from his hospital bed, which left him destitute once he recovered.
“I never put in a form straight away when I came out of hospital because I didn’t think I needed to,” Gary explained. “I’m supposed to be under social services, seeing healthcare [people] every day, twice a day… And I guess they told me wrong, because it doesn’t work like that nowadays. And I’ve never claimed benefits before so I don’t know.”
Personal issues can also play a part. Many rough sleepers have alcohol or drug dependencies or mental illness. They may have fled violence at home. But once on the streets, it’s almost impossible to get off. And the large increase in the number of homeless over time is testament to the power wider societal factors have in pushing people to the margins. It’s no coincidence that there are growing numbers of people bedding down outside at a time of austerity, precarious work and cuts to local authority budgets.
When the American novelist Jack London ventured among the beggars and tramps of the east end of London a hundred years ago, he set out to record the lives of men and women he described as the “refuse of a human sty”. The characters who featured in The People of the Abyss, his masterpiece of reportage, were considered not quite human, at least not by Victorian high society.
As London wrote, they were “a different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance”. In other words they were the ‘undeserving poor’, a section of the lower orders that was treated as beyond contempt by the Victorian middle and upper classes.
These attitudes aren’t confined to the past. According to research published in 2017 by the London housing and support charity Evolve, more than a quarter (29%) of Londoners believe that people sleeping rough are to blame for their predicament.
Moreover, three quarters (74%) believe that rough sleepers could get themselves off the streets if they wanted to. In other words, we still view extreme poverty through a lens tinted by the Victorian age, when Henry Mayhew, pioneer of 19th-century social research on the poor, subtitled the fourth volume of his book London Labour and the London poor, “Those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work”.
A similar moral distinction is made by those who take the view that the homeless are an irritant or menace, out under the stars on a whim. A century ago, Jack London noticed that it was “a law of the powers that be that the homeless shall not sleep at night”. In recent years, various architectural innovations, such as anti-homeless spikes and “bum-proof benches” have been employed to discourage what is deemed to be anti-social behaviour, whether that’s loitering or rough-sleeping, in public as well as on private land.
In modern Britain, though, you don’t need to have made feckless choices to end up on the streets, behaving “anti-socially”. The sudden loss of a job or a change in personal circumstances could make the difference. When I was in Blackpool, one in three families was one month’s pay away from losing their homes. One 19-year-old woman told me how she was paid just 62p an hour in error by the employment agency she worked for. It took her six weeks to get back the money she was owed, and she was certain that this would have resulted in time spent on the streets had it not been for emergency support she received from a relative.
Gary did at one time lead an existence most politicians would describe as “respectable”. He had a roof over his head and a reasonable wage coming in. Yet that “respectability” disappeared through several strokes of bad luck. Gary, when I met him, had been reduced to a “heap”, as he described himself, by a life-altering diagnosis and the failure to submit the correct piece of paper from his hospital bed.
“It’s degrading.” he told me morosely, as he described how he spends every day sitting on a filthy slab of pavement hoping to extract some sliver of generosity from passers-by.
We can’t ignore the fact that the problem of homelessness has risen drastically under successive Tory governments. Some politicians seem to have grasped the scale of the problem: this year Theresa May introduced the Homelessness Reduction Act, which imposes a duty on local authorities to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent homelessness. It remains to be seen how effective it will prove.
But it can’t be denied that part of the problem lies in the public’s attitude. A widespread indifference has allowed the crisis to reach this point. If the homeless are lucky, we step over them. If they aren’t, they are belittled, assaulted and urinated upon. Until they are seen as less fortunate versions of ourselves, people who unintentionally ended up at the margins of society, then Gary and the thousands of people like him will remain a faceless statistic, the unwanted detritus of an atomised society.