June 24, 2020

Almost four years ago, I spent several dank hours sitting on a grubby slab of pavement in the summer rain of Blackpool listening to a homeless man recounting his journey from respectable affluence to gut-wrenching poverty. His name was Gary. Every night he bedded down in one of several foul-smelling doorways just off Blackpool’s famous Golden Mile. As if to complete the gloomy mise en scène, he shared this particular doorway with a weather-beaten man whose frame filled his clothes like twigs in a sack.

What struck me was not so much the squalor of his situation: we’re all familiar with the pornography of street life — the dirt and the poverty. What was extraordinary, though, was the suddenness with which Gary had fallen through society’s floorboards. One minute he had a reasonably decent job, a relationship and a flat; the next, everything had unravelled like a poorly knitted scarf. By the time I met Gary he was eking out his existence in a rank doorway, unseen by the thousands who trod the pavements each day.

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Yet Gary’s experience was not an unusual one. Before Covid, the situation for working renters in Britain was precarious: almost half of them were just a single pay cheque away from homelessness. If you were lucky, you could ‘couch surf’ at the house of friends and relatives or, if you weren’t on friendly terms with any good samaritans, then the streets beckoned. As wages stagnated, and the cost of renting increased, so too did the numbers of men and women bedding down in shop and restaurant doorways; rough sleeping in England rose for seven consecutive years up to 2017.

The most up to date figures show that from April to June 2019, 68,170 households were either homeless or threatened with homelessness — an increase of 11% on the previous year. This doesn’t take account of the so-called hidden homeless: those couch surfers, squatters and those who bed down each night in filthy and overcrowded doss houses.

Homelessness now blights every large British town or city — and the public have tolerated it by and large. Or, at least, they have turned out to polling stations to vote for politicians who have tolerated it: David Cameron and George Osborne, for example. But their version of modern, caring conservatism seemed to view poverty through a decidedly Victorian lens. Responsibility was placed on the individual — “and having located the responsibility, society goes contentedly on about its own affairs”, as Jack London wrote in The People of the Abyss, his journalistic sojourn among the homeless in turn-of-the-century London. And since 2016, all politicians of all stripes have been preoccupied almost entirely with Brexit.

But crises are funny things. As Covid-19 reached Britain, it started to dawn on politicians that the homeless were no longer a mere inconvenience to be edged past on the rush to the office, but potential super-spreaders of a highly infectious disease. So, on March 26, the Government issued its ‘Everybody In’ directive. Local authorities were instructed to provide immediate accommodation for anyone who was sleeping rough. Councils were handed a total of £3.2m to place them in hotels and B&Bs. Homelessness was abolished at the stroke of a pen.

To be fair to Boris Johnson, he had just announced new money to tackle homelessness before Covid arrived. In a break with its austere predecessors, the Government, in December, set up a £63 million grant scheme to help the homeless in England into accommodation.

However, as we ease out of lockdown, the Government is no longer directing councils to accommodate the homeless beyond their statutory duty. And the problem will spike massively as the pandemic abates. Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes told me: “At this very minute tens of thousands of people across Great Britain are struggling against a rising tide of job insecurity and high rents, all of which threaten to push them into homelessness”.

Against this ominous backdrop, though, there is much talk about the nature of the post-pandemic landscape. And a quiet revolution seems to be taking place. The number of people who see Britain as a society in which we look after each other has tripled since February. Since the referendum, conventional wisdom had it that Britain was a deeply polarised place. Yet more than half (57%) of Britons now believe the country will be united once the pandemic has receded.

We may, in other words, be undergoing what former prime minister James Callaghan called a “sea change” in attitudes: “a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of”. Perhaps the sight of ragged men and women wandering submissively through British streets, paper cups gripped tightly in emaciated outstretched hands, may be intolerable to the nation that emerges from lockdown: a nation which feels itself both more united and more uneasy about the spread of disease.

But putting a roof over someone’s head is in some ways the easy part. And in any case, the the idea we might ever totally eliminate homelessness is a pipe dream. Many are sleeping rough because of debilitating drug addictions. Nearly a third (32%) of all deaths among homeless people in England in 2017 were a result of drug poisoning. And many are there because of mental health issues or complicated social factors.

Turning someone who has existed on the margins into a functioning member of society — capable of holding down a job and paying the rent on time – is a bigger challenge. As the founder of the Big Issue John Bird wrote in 2017: “The people I have spoken with or noticed recently know what they want. They want a further high. But that is the worst thing for them. Their decision-making has been robbed from them. Cogent and rational behaviour has been stolen away.”

But ensuring that every person in Britain has a roof over their head is something to shoot for at least. Money, too, is infinitely more useful than moral sanctimony when it comes to rehabilitating drug users.

The record of the previous Labour government is impressive in this respect. It also presents a historical refutation to the idea that blame for homelessness can be laid at the feet of the individual. Homelessness rose exponentially in the 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in the infamous ‘cardboard cities’ scattered around London. Unemployment played a big role, as did the increased availability of drugs. But the political will to reduce the problem just wasn’t there.

In contrast, when Labour came to office in 1997 there was a conscious drive to end rough sleeping. They didn’t quite achieve that — I’m doubtful that any government ever has — but there was a reduction by two-thirds in rough sleeping between 1999 and 2002, taking 1,147 people off the streets. This looks all the more impressive when set against the lethargy of recent years. The number of rough sleepers has gradually risen from 1,768 in 2010, when Labour left office, to 4,677 in 2018.

Today, there are a range of new factors driving people onto the streets. The ‘gig’ economy, for example, has become synonymous with chronic underemployment, while waves of migration from Eastern Europe have resulted in begging as newcomers discover that British streets are not paved with gold. Moreover, government cuts to local authority budgets, the introduction of Universal Credit along with house price inflation sent many more fanning out into the streets.

There are signs the public is growing tired of it — fed up of the sight of filthy mattresses and sleeping bags nestled under every underpass and alcove. Some of the shift in attitudes towards the homeless at the turn of the 1990s was motivated by an outburst of warmth for fellow man — the view that people were poor because they were simply unlucky gained public traction following the recessions of the the time.

But many just wanted the streets tidied up. They were sick of seeing the destitute sprawled across the pavement each time they walked along a busy street or opened up a shop or restaurant. With contagion likely to be an ongoing existential concern once the pandemic has loosened its grip, it’s hard to see how the status quo of recent years — the uncaring attitude that dismisses the street-dweller with a contemptuous wave of the hand — can continue in perpetuity.

Some have compared the coronavirus crisis with the Second World War. The Queen even nodded to Vera Lynn during her April 5 Coronavirus broadcast. These parallels can be pretty overcooked. For one thing, it’s extremely unlikely that Boris Johnson will be viewed by history as a stoic Churchillian bulldog who pulled the nation back from the brink of catastrophe – although our unpreparedness to deal with Covid-19 does bring to mind the title of Churchill’s book on the complacency that led up to war: ‘While England Slept’.

However, I think key echoes may actually be found in Covid-19’s aftermath. Britain discovered during World War Two that economic planning could work. And so, once Britain had seen off Hitler and the Nazis, it was no longer inconceivable that the Government could take a larger role in the economy. The old world of laissez faire economics was buried under ten square miles of rubble along with Berlin.

As unemployment soars, the political horizons of the British people may very well expand. Recent months have demonstrated to even the most sceptical, that it is possible to house rough sleepers. What it requires is political will — and for the Chancellor to turn the funding taps on. The homeless charity Crisis has estimated that it would cost £282m to permanently rehouse those currently staying in hotels and B&Bs. This is chicken feed in the context of the vast sums that have already been spent.

The next decade is going to be an exceedingly difficult one. Unemployment will reach levels not seen since the 1980s. The warm bubble we are suspended in at present — held afloat by furlough money  — will pop come October, and many will fall suddenly to the ground with a painful crash. Amid the growing government debt, we can expect a rehash of the pro-austerity arguments of a decade ago; there will be calls for the Government to retreat yet further from the social life of the nation.

But I suspect the post-Covid landscape will resemble the post-war era more than the world born of the 2008 recession, at least in terms of its political potential. The greatest feats of the immediate post-war government — the NHS, the welfare state, a major programme of house building — were achieved in a country that was so bankrupt it had to ration bread. Yet within a few years, those radical institutions seemed entirely normal.  The political horizons of ordinary people had slowly expanded as the bombs fell on British cities, to the point where an impossible dream — of a land ‘fit for heroes’, as Lloyd George defined it at the close of the First World War —  had become a reality.

Perhaps Covid-19 will lead to a similar expansion in the realm of the possible. Amid the ever-present threat of disease, the comfortably off may begin to notice — really notice —the people who sit mournfully in the shop doorways. The sight of thousands of men and women bedding down out of doors each night might suddenly seem intolerable in a modern and civilised country. We may collectively look upon the Garys — as well as the thousands of other men and women like him — and put aside the miserly economic calculations and simply say, “That is a human being”.

And then, just as they did for a few years after 1945, the poor will have begun to make history again.