Comment | Britain’s homelessness crisis shames us all

Last week, a homeless man was found dead yards away from the Houses of Parliament, the latest victim of Britain's homelessness crisis. Sam Asumadu reflects on the roots and lessons of a national scandal.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, December 25, 2018 13:54 - 0 Comments

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I don’t know about you. But I am heartbroken.

Last week, at 23:30 on Tuesday night, Gyula Remes, a 43-year-old man, was found dead by British Transport Police outside Westminster Underground Station — right across the street from the Houses of Parliament.

Only last February, less than ten months earlier, another man had died on the same spot.

“He was the most gorgeous gentleman you would like to meet”, said Dawn, one of Gyula’s friends, adding: “It’s killing me this, I can’t cope with this, I really can’t. I keep expecting him to walk around here.” Remes, she told BBC News, had just found a job and was expecting to be off the streets soon.

It was cruel and senseless, but Guyla’s death was not exceptional.

Six hundred homeless people were found dead in England and Wales in 2017, either on the streets or in temporary accommodation (figures for 2018 have yet to be released by the Office for National Statistics at the time of writing).

In the past five years, recorded deaths of homeless people sleeping rough went up by 24%.

Over that same period, child homelessness has gone up by 73%.

As I write, a shocking 1 in 200 people in the UK are homeless.

By 2010, the Labour Government — which made the issue one of its priorities — had cut down rough sleeping to about 400 people per night across the whole of England. In 2018, after eight years of Conservative (or Tory-led) government, that number has now soared to 4,751 according to the government’s own figures. However, according to homeless charity Crisis, this is a five-fold underestimate. The number of people who will be sleeping on the streets, in cars and in tents, they argue, is closer to 24,000.

Despite a looming Brexit (which many are starting to regrexit), there is no excuse for our society, one of the world’s richest countries, to have 1 in 200 of its residents going homeless. Not a single excuse.

We know that people are sleeping rough and where. We know that they are dying at a rate of knots. And yet we, as a society, have allowed for the demonization of the homeless, and our own apathy, to putrefy enough for us to let this happen again and again.

A few days ago, a local police team from Brompton and Hans Town was celebrating publicly the fact that a homeless man had been moved on (to who knows where) from the area, tweeting: “The male has finally left the area for good, hopefully. Smile back on the faces of our local residents and businesses that patiently coped with the male. The pictures speak for themselves. Police and Council partnership in action”

Elsewhere, a group of men were filmed as they viciously attacked a homeless man as he slept in his tent — and seemed to take great pleasure in doing so. This prompted Radio presenter Jer Dixon to tweet:

Three weeks ago, a tent was sent on fire with a homeless man inside it. ITV News tweeted a link to its report on what it called a “heartwarming moment a homeless man received a new tent and sleeping bags from NHS staff,” to which a twitter user replied “How on earth @itvnews can sign off this tweet as heartwarming?!!! Do your job as journalists and question why in this country we are allowing this. His tent was set alight!!! Utterly shameful, my heart is not warmed by knowing he is back on the street”

Commenting on the tragic news of Gyula’s death, the Shadow Housing Minister, Melanie Onn, noted that the area where Remes was found had become increasingly popular with homeless people. “Just last week I saw police resuscitating someone in the same spot,” she stated. “It’s a go to area because it’s dry and warmer than outside, but it’s wholly inappropriate to stay there. There’s not even any wash facilities.”

“That poor man has lost his life and everyone else comes out the exit and they’re just walking by as if nothing’s happened,” said Sara, 38, another of Gyula’s friends. She had herself slept in the underpass for the past month. “He was blue last night and everyone was just walking past him like he didn’t matter.”

I wonder how we — across the political spectrum — have become such heartless people that we can pinpoint the very spot where homeless people sleep, and die, yet still do nothing about it.

Isn’t it time we actually got woke?

Since Gyula’s death, and as had happened last February, several MPS issued fruitless calls for the government to offer a commitment to end rough sleeping after the “terrible tragedy”.

Plus ça change.

Credit where it’s due though: Member of the Walking Dead Theresa May told Parliament on Wednesday that ”nobody in this country should have to sleep rough on the streets in this country”. She also proffered murmurs about an enquiry to find out the causes of homeless people dying.

I could posit an answer, Theresa. It would, however, indict you and your whole party.

Despite the shameful record of its government, the Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire has stoutly defended Tory sociopathy, insisting that homeless was not the result of political failures and instead blaming it on family breakdown and drug use. This is despite the fact “charities which run hostels and advice lines believe that caps on housing benefit and welfare sanctions introduced as part of austerity policies have been key factors driving rises in homelessness every year since the Conservatives took office in 2010.”

This week, Labour, in all its powerlessness, announced that once back in government it will repeal the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which criminalises begging and rough sleeping. According to George Eaton, deputy editor of the New Statesman, the law was used 3,000 times in 2016, with fines of up to £1,000 and a two-year criminal record imposed.

Jeremy Corbyn — tracked down, once again, by Channel 4 news — recently said that

“Homelessness is unnecessary and frankly it’s immoral that a wealthy country like Britain tolerates anyone being forced to sleep on our streets. Let’s build the houses and regulate the private rented sector…”

Enter that muscular liberal of the centre right, Nick Cohen, who warned in the Guardian against what he called Corbyn’s callous ‘disaster socialism’. (Yes, that stopped me in my tracks too.) But when you consider the merits of Cohen’s ahistorical meltdown, which glosses over ACTUAL disaster free market capitalism — such as Pinochet, urged on by the Chicago boys to smash and grab Chile’s state coffers from 1975 onwards, leaving Chileans queuing-up to buy bread, all with Thatcher’s approval — maybe we SHOULD try this ‘disaster socialism’ that neo-conservative of the left Nick Cohen so abhors. After all, Tory chaos and the effects of the conservatives’ class war austerity are driving us all towards destitution anyway.

If only our actual Prime minister would repeat, and use her powers to enact, what Corbyn had said. Instead, it’s “another enquiry m’lud?” (Theresa May would have been booted out of office before the paid-for, foregone conclusion that “the Tories are not at fault” comes in.)

Orwell’s lessons

About twelve years ago, I read George Orwell ‘s semi-autobiographical book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ — a seminal work on rough sleeping and homelessness as a man. All these years later, what has stuck with me was a passage about women who have been made homeless. Whilst not particularly empathetic, it is instructive, even in 2018 terms:

‘Tramps are cut off from women, in the first place, because there are very few women at their level of society. One might imagine that among destitute people the sexes would be as equally balanced as elsewhere. But it is not so; in fact, one can almost say that below a certain level society is entirely male. The following figures, published by the L.G.C. from a night census taken on February 13th, 1931, will show the relative numbers of destitute men and destitute women:

Spending the night in the streets,
60 men, 18 women.[6]

In shelters and homes not licensed as common lodging-houses,
1,057 men, 137 women.

In the crypt of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields Church,
88 men, 12 women.

In L.C.C. casual wards and hostels,
674 men, 15 women.

It will be seen from these figures that at the charity level men outnumber women by something like ten to one. The cause is presumably that unemployment affects women less than men; also that any presentable woman can, in the last resort, attach herself to some man.’

(This is why I was practically apoplectic when another luminary of the left, Owen Jones, perhaps trying to impress fascist of the left Slavoj Zizek, recently declared “Anybody who quotes Orwell, I write them off” [at 45 secs])

Only this month, a report in the Independent detailed how women who have been made homeless are having to enter into dangerous and abusive relationships to protect themselves from the wider risks of rough sleeping. The evidence they are being coerced to do all sorts of horrific and demeaning acts to survive on the streets should damn every person in government who dares to call themselves a feminist or a supporter of women. (What matters the glass ceiling when our most vulnerable are being abused in front of our eyes?)

Write off Orwell and you write off what he taught us about homelessness in the late 1920s — lessons we are, in 2018, still failing to learn.

Whether Orwell wrote his book during the Christmas period or not, his lessons still ring true.

‘The question arises, Why are beggars despised?–for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modem people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.’

Write off Orwell and you write off what he taught us about homelessness in the late 1920s — lessons we are, in 2018, still failing to learn.

Last October, I went to a play at the Battersea Arts Centre called Rallying Cry. During her performance, the last poet enjoined us to ”keep coins in your pocket, so you can give something to every homeless person you see”. Suddenly my feelings of horror and uneasiness at the number of homeless people I saw on the streets everyday all coalesced into a realisation: In a near cashless society this was the best advice I had heard in years. I have since endeavoured to follow it, especially when it comes to homeless women. I hope you will, too.

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Samantha Asumadu

Samantha Asumadu is a former filmmaker and journalist. She is the founder of Media Diversified, the MD Experts Directory & the co-founder of Bare Lit Festival. She's on Twitter @honestlyAbroad. You can support her journalism via her Patreon page.

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