By Jennifer Kavanagh
It is important to remember that in recent times the sight of beggars on the streets of London is new. Poverty has always been with us, but street homelessness on the scale we see today can be dated to the 1980s. When I was growing up in London, there were a few “tramps”, usually middle-aged or elderly, “gentlemen of the road”. It was only when benefits were taken away from the 16 to18 year olds that suddenly people were begging on the streets. It was – and is – deeply shocking that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a sight reminiscent of the poorest countries, or of Victorian times in our own country, should become so commonplace on our city streets.
It’s time the public reassessed its view of homeless people: a view largely expounded by the popular media and, to its shame, backed up by the recent New Labour government. The “stick not carrot” approach has been taken up by some councils, moving people on in the middle of the night, for example. It was only after protest from community organisations a couple of years ago that Westminster Council withdrew plans to ban giving food out to people on the streets.
Homelessness means not having a home. Even if you have a roof over your head you can still be homeless if you have no right to stay where you live. Homeless people include those squatting, “sofa-surfing” at the home of friends, staying in a hostel, as well as the thousands of families placed by local councils in temporary and often unsuitable bed and breakfast accommodation.
There is no requirement for councils to provide housing for someone
a) not in priority need. Priority groups include those who are pregnant, have dependent children, are homeless because of an emergency such as a flood or a fire, aged 16 or 17 (except certain care leavers who remain the responsibility of social services); care leavers aged 18–20 (if looked after, accommodated or fostered while aged 16–17), those vulnerable due to old age, a physical or mental illness or handicap or physical disability, or other special reason (such as a person at risk of exploitation).
b) “intentionally” homeless: a loop-hole often used by councils struggling with lack of provision;.
c) who does not have a local connection. Many people leaving home to find a job in another part of the country, or fleeing an abusive or dangerous situation, find that they are without help.
c) someone subject to immigration control
As a result, in 2007-8, 4,261 ‘households’ in England approached councils for assistance with housing and were found to be homeless but not eligible for permanent housing.
Single people under 25 have a particularly hard time, because of the single room rent restriction on housing benefit, which limits their entitlement to the cost of a room in shared accommodation. In practice, it leaves them with insufficient money to rent anywhere.
But it’s the people sleeping rough, the visible tip of the iceberg, that provoke the most controversy. Let’s look at the facts.
The numbers game. The official figures for London for the period 2007-8 were that 200-300 people slept rough on any one night and that 3017 different people slept rough over the period of a year. But this does not tell the whole story.
A verified rough sleeper is someone who has been seen “bedded down”, ie sleeping or preparing to sleep rough, by outreach workers, usually three times in one place. Many homeless people hide away from fear or shame or a need to be alone. In a report by The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN), 14 per cent mentioned sleeping in garages or sheds, 13 per cent in stairwells or cupboards in blocks of flats, and 13 per cent in buses or trams. Other locations included bus or train stations, car parks, churchyards, and woods. Many have told me that they have waited months to be “interviewed”, given a number and verified. Not surprisingly, the official numbers are far below the real ones.
Turnover in hostels varies greatly, but it is reasonable to assume that at least 75,000 different individuals in the UK use hostels over a course of a year, mostly in London. Hostel residents are unlikely to show up significantly in the statutory figures.
Under the last government, many charities in receipt of government funding had to restrict access to their services to those verified by the above process, excluding many in need.
Reasons for becoming homeless include being evicted by your landlord, losing your job, health problems, relationship problems, or a disaster such as fire or flooding. A man sleeping outside All Soul’s church told me that when his mother died, he was turned out by the council because his name had not been on the rental agreement. He was bereaved and bewildered.
1. Most people on the street are hopeless long-term cases. WRONG. Many homeless people (one-quarter of those surveyed by CHAIN, and many of those I meet daily in central London) have only recently lost a home. The recession will mean that there will more people on the streets.
2. People choose to live on the streets. WRONG. Someone who had worked in housing all his life said that he had never met anyone who really wanted to live on the streets. I think I have met one or two, but they are extremely rare. Even if someone says that is their preference, the alternatives might be an abusive partner or a hostel where they are in fear. Many fear the solitude of living alone, and feel safer in a community, even on the streets…
3. There are hostels for all who need them. WRONG. Despite government investment in hostels in recent years, many are on waiting lists. Overcrowding, a lack of bed space, and sharing rooms or limited facilities with others are also identified as problems. If you have a partner, or a dog, your choices narrow considerably. And, although the quality of hostels has improved considerably, hostels are often considered unsafe. Over one half (57 per cent) of those who stayed in hostels mentioned problems with other residents, including drug and alcohol use, violence, theft, bullying, noise and arguments. “It’s not a place to go if you want to stay clean.”
In addition to the above, there are certain groups who are excluded from hostels, such as people from the EU who are homeless and destitute on the streets of the UK. Their entitlements to benefits are restricted until they have lived and worked and paid into the UK system through national Insurance and tax for one year continuously.
Even if someone finds a hostel, where do they go from there? The biggest problem facing people on the streets today is a lack of permanent “move-on” accommodation.
Exclusion. Street homeless people have:
- Reduced access to health care and dental services.
- Limited access to education.
- Increased risk of suffering from violence and abuse.
- General rejection or discrimination from other people.
- Loss of usual relationships with the mainstream
- Not being seen as suitable for employment.
- Reduced access to banking services
- Reduced access to communications technology
Most of all, living on the streets is dangerous. Rough sleepers die young: on average at 42, the life expectancy of some of the poorest countries in the world. Every year St Martin-in-the Fields holds a commemoration service for people who have died homeless in London – some 200 last year.
Imagine spending just one night on the streets. Am I allowed to be here? Will I be arrested? How to keep warm? How to keep safe, away from prying eyes? And my belongings, where can I put them? Cardboard to add warmth and pad the hardness of the pavement? Where can I pee? Do my teeth? Get a drink of water? Wash? And change/wash clothes? It is astonishing how many street homeless people cope, how clean they are. Yes, there are day centres which provide showers. But you need to know where they are and when they are open, how to find them when perhaps you don’t know the city, and have no money for travel. And maybe there’s a language problem. Not to mention mental health issues or drug or drink dependencies which can be caused by the stress of being homeless if they weren’t there before.
Westminster has the highest number of rough sleepers in the country: the latest official figure is 147 in a single night: a significant undercount for all the reasons of hidden homelessness given above.
Any of us could become homeless. If you have a secure roof over your head, count your blessings – and be kind to the next homeless person you meet.
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Jennifer Kavanagh is a former clerk (executive chair) of Quaker Homeless Action. Italicised passages above are from her book, The O of Home, published earlier this year by O Books. See www.o-of-home.co.uk