“When one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them,” wrote George Orwell about the homeless in his 1933 memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London.
What would Orwell, who championed clarity and transparency in writing, have made of Camden Cllr Jonathan Simpson’s comments, as reported in a recent Fitzrovia News article (“Counting Rough Sleepers…”, 13 April), when he included rough sleepers as among those who have a “street based lifestyle”?
Grinding poverty is cast as a “lifestyle choice” as in a “physically active lifestyle” or a “meat-free lifestyle”. Or what about the recent report from Fitzrovia Business Improvement District (“Business Group Says Homeless Choose to Sleep Rough“, 3 April), which claims that the “vast majority” of homeless people choose to sleep on the streets? The same report opts for the term “street people”, which, we presume, are to be distinguished from “house people.”
The euphemistic expressions above reflect how just how uncomfortable the issue of homelessness makes us. It poses a problem for an image of this country as “fair” and “just” — that despite the inordinate wealth of this city, thousands struggle to keep a roof over their heads.
And it is a growing problem. While Camden Council’s low estimates of rough sleepers in the borough have provoked suspicion (‘Counting Rough Sleepers…, 13 April), homeless charities agree that the number of people sleeping on the streets is on the rise.
The charity Crisis, in this year’s Homelessness Monitor, report that councils are underestimating the number of homeless people and that headline figures “no longer reflect” the true scale of homelessness. The report reveals how “political choices” such as cuts to welfare such as housing benefits are behind the increase in the number of people becoming homeless.
Because of this, it is vital that we stop discussing homelessness as a moral problem and start treating it as a political problem. Cuts to housing benefits and a massively inflated housing market are the primary cause of increasing homelessness today, not individuals’ poor moral choices.
By rethinking homelessness as a political, rather than moral problem we should also reconsider our reaction to it, and move from “moral” charitable responses to political ones based on solidarity and activism.
There are inspiring examples of political organising all over this city, from the Focus E15 mothers in Newham, who successfully fought for the right to a home, to occupations of empty housing estates led by residents in Barnet and Southwark.
These actions show that by organising together, ordinary people can resist being “passive” victims of homelessness and help put a roof over their heads. Indeed, inspiration is on our doorstep; the old Volvo car showroom at the top of Cleveland Street, which until very recently had been sitting empty, has now become a workspace for Rhythms of Life, an organisation dedicated to helping provide food for the homeless.
If homelessness is set to increase in the foreseeable future, we must stop treating it as a “lifestyle choice”, but rather as the most destructive effect of the UK’s housing crisis, a crisis all of us are bound up in.