IT’S 30 years since I worked as a volunteer in a homeless centre in the East End of London. Every Monday evening for about two years I would go along after work and help out; serving sandwiches and cups of tea, chatting and playing cards, with the hundred or so men and women who regularly dropped by.
It was in a crypt underneath a church, run by a redoubtable bunch of ladies, many of whom had survived the Blitz. There was no room for preaching or do-gooding; we simply tried to be kind. It was a sobering experience and one that taught me never to take anything for granted.
Every client had a sad tale to tell; the prostitute who had a miscarriage in the morning but was back at work that night, the lady with the good clothes and fine features but no shoes, the ex-soldier who just stared into space and the chap who wore work overalls splattered with paint but slept in a Tube station doorway. But do you know the saddest thing? Three decades on, we’re facing homelessness on an unprecedented scale. Last year, in Yorkshire alone, 70 people died on our streets, but it’s not just rough sleepers we should be concerned about.
Although the latest official figures found 246 people sleeping rough in Yorkshire and the Humber last year, some 350 homeless children are stuck living in temporary accommodation with no guaranteed way of escape. Imagine your own son or daughter living in a B&B with nowhere to play but the stairs. Then imagine what that does to the mind of a child.
My 22-year-old self never thought that in the second decade of the 21st century, nothing would have changed and much would have got worse. There are factors which colour the landscape today which we could only have conjured up in our worst nightmares; absentee private landlords with scores of unregulated properties who can kick out tenants on a whim, countless numbers of families from other countries who arrive here with nothing but the clothes they stand up in, almost a decade of Conservative government ‘austerity’ which saw the introduction of Universal Credit and threw millions even further into poverty, and the proliferation of drug use, which has seen new psychoactive substances take a grip on young people and place an added burden on support services (which in turn have been cut to the bone by public spending curbs).
Although we knew that some of our crypt clients had addiction issues, there were relatively few whose habit had made them homeless in the first place. Of course, not all homeless people are drug-users and not all drug-users are homeless. However, the charity Crisis, says that two thirds cite drug or alcohol use as a reason for first losing their home. In addition, those who use drugs are seven times more likely to be homeless.
Addiction – to either drugs or alcohol (and often both) – and the close attendant poor mental health, is a major reason why people become homeless today.
But it’s not the only one. The root causes of homelessness are diverse and endemic; they also include underfunded probation services which abandon those leaving prison, domestic violence, divorce, lack of support for those leaving the armed forces and the care system.
Which is why Labour’s much-heralded response to homelessness feels like such a damp squib. Delivered on what was World Homeless Day, the best leader Jeremy Corbyn could come up with was “Labour will end rough sleeping”.
Sure, he also mentioned building “a million genuinely affordable homes over 10 years, the majority for social rent, with the biggest council house-building programme in a generation”, but with respect, this is missing the point.
What’s the point of having a home if you have so many other problems that you don’t know how to live in it, never mind pay the rent on time? The sensible politician would understand this and not shirk the bigger and more difficult picture. Our world today is a tough one. It is so easy to pull up your own personal drawbridge, turn your back or cross the road and pretend that homelessness isn’t happening in front of you. Yet you only have to walk through any town or city centre on a weekday afternoon to see the evidence of the desolate and dispossessed.
It’s easy to tut and shake your head. I know plenty of people who are beginning to find the situation so distressing that they avoid shopping altogether, which is destroying the cohesion we need for our urban areas to thrive.
No one asked for this. Yet it is so hard to change things without the help and understanding of those in power, at both local and national level. So what can we do? Support the charities which work so tirelessly to help those in need and at the next General Election, seek out the candidates who have a proper understanding of why homelessness happens and tangible ideas of how to tackle it. More houses are a start, but they are not necessarily the answer.