Shame has become an emotional by-product of a night out in contemporary Britain. Not the type of shame one might associate with the imbibing of alcohol or, after about the fifth or sixth drink, compulsorily purchasing that soon-to-be-unwanted packet of cigarettes.
It is not the scrunched-up Marlboro Lights box stuffed in the pocket which causes this discomfiture. It is the crumpled up human being who meekly sidles up to you to plead for some coins.
Drinkers loitering outside of London’s pubs, clubs, and restaurants have become unwitting empiricist explorers akin to Henry Mayhew or Jack London. The superficial cocoons we Londoners walk around encased in – headphones on, eyes transfixed to the small ‘device’ we carry close, scurrying from office to fooderie to drinking den – are more akin to rooms with poorly fitting front doors.
Occasionally the thing drops off the hinges and we are forced to confront the full horror of what is taking place outside, rather like an inversion of JG Ballard’s retro hellscape High-Rise.
An overnight count by the charity Homeless Link last autumn recorded 4,134 rough sleepers in England. This is a 134% increase on 2010 when the Conservatives first took power. While the largest increase has been in London, the phenomenon is not confined to England’s capital city, and in some respects is more noticeable outside it.
It is no longer merely a problem they “get down in London”, as my grandmother said when I recalled an unprecedented sighting of a beggar in our own shabby Edwardian seaside town. Over recent years it has become unexceptional to see a person perched cross-legged on the pavement in some nondescript market town far away from the metropolis.
The North West has been hit particularly hard by the rise in homelessness, seeing a 42% increase in rough sleeping this year alone compared to last, according to Homeless Link.
I spent some time in Blackpool in 2016 where even then the number of homeless people was higher than in some London boroughs. One man I met was sleeping on Blackpool’s streets because he had failed to submit the correct social security form after a lengthy spell in hospital. He was receiving chemotherapy for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in between begging for change perched in a filthy and stinking restaurant doorway. The clothing on his gaunt body resembled a sack filled with twigs
Beyond this growing army of rough sleepers there exists a less conspicuous layer of sofa-surfers and families traipsing through the dizzying revolving door of emergency temporary accommodation. There were 77,000 households in temporary accommodation in March 2017, says official data, an increase from 49,000 in 2011.
In Blackpool, around 2,500 households were seeking help from the town’s council each year because they had either lost their accommodation or were at risk of losing it. I met a father and son who the previous day had presented themselves as homeless because their buy-to-let landlord had disappeared like a cat in a thunderstorm, resulting in their flat being broken into and vandalised by local kids.
In a damning new report, the National Audit Office (NAO) has accused the government of a “light touch” approach to a crisis that has been fuelled by social security cuts and private landlords increasing rents. NAO analysis found that rents in London had increased by a quarter since 2010 – eight times the average rise in take-home earnings. Arbitrary cuts to the local housing allowance has meant that tenants are sometimes left with rental shortfalls which they are unable to make up.
While all this has been going on, council budgets have been slashed resulting in less money going to local housing support services. According to Homeless Link, there were 16% fewer bed spaces for single homeless people in England in 2015 than in 2010.
And so pockets of cardboard and polyester cities have emerged in the cities and towns of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But one ought to be very clear that this represents the re-emergence of a phenomenon, and is something which blighted England during the last period of prolonged Conservative rule during the eighties and nineties.
Back then, the human detritus puked up by Thatcherism’s red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism led Tony Blair to attack the “scandal” of people living rough in England and Labour to invest £375m on young people leaving council care and £200m on beds and hostels.
In the first few years of the Labour government, 5,000 new beds for rough sleepers were created in England. Results were soon forthcoming. By the year 2000, the number of people sleeping rough in England had fallen by more than a third in just two years.
Just as any house needs a roof to hold its four walls in place, so every dominant economic class is buttressed by a veil of supporting rationalisations. During the age of empire, most politicians were well aware that it was wrong to steal other people’s land; thus the act of theft was justified by a cottage industry of scribblers churning out pseudoscience which portrayed the pillaged as subhuman, backwards, and merely the inert matter of capitalist progress.
The heirs of these imperialists of the mind heap their scorn today on any structural explanation for poverty and, by extension, homelessness. As the conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple wrote back in 1999 – at a time when homelessness was falling drastically because of the very economic policies he lamented as a soft-hearted extravagance – “the worst poverty in England…is not material poverty but poverty of soul”.
This week’s National Audit Office report makes the obvious point (which is no less important for being obvious) that economic decisions based on glib and serf-serving ideas about poverty and the supposed human deficiencies of the poor have serious (human) consequences.
Scarcely more modern theorists than Dalrymple have laid the ideological foundations for the latest attempt by Tory ministers to end a mythical ‘something for nothing’ culture. As a recent paper in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice put it, the government of David ‘hug a hoodie’ Cameron introduced arguably the “harshest regime of conditionality and sanctions in the history of the benefits system”.
The result is an obstacle course of wretched human life which increasingly presents itself to the pedestrian on any trip through England’s capital city. It is not only the capital’s drinkers who encounter this appalling spectacle, but its advance does summon a useful drink-related metaphor.
Allowing homelessness to rise like this is a deliberate and properly understood choice, a bit like the decision some of us make to take on one last drink as the pubs disgorge their garrulous crowds into the night.