Tuesday 24 December 2013

Homelessness - it ain't what it used to be

I spent Christmas 1979 working in a homeless shelter in Coventry.

Like Maia in Ghost Town, I’d spent the summer after a graduated volunteering at the Shelter, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to go back there for Christmas. 

Christmas Eve, I went to the midnight service at the ancient Holy Trinity Church next to the Cathedral. And Christmas morning we borrowed the kitchen at the local Methodist church to cook turkey and all the trimmings for around 30 homeless men who had nowhere else to go.

Back then, most of those we catered for probably complied with your stereotype of a homeless person. They were male. In their thirties or forties, but looking a lot older. And almost all were alcoholics.

Even back then, though, there was much to defy lazy stereotyping. We did indeed have an ex-soldier,  like Pongo, who had failed to adjust to civvy street – who kept himself spotlessly clean and had a passion for mathematical puzzles and lateral thinking. With a few exceptions, these guys were kind, often funny, and fiercely protective of the women volunteers.

Move the clock on a few years and the nature of homelessness was changing.  First came the transients, who hit the road looking for work when the recession hit in the early 80s.  Then there were those who slipped through the cracks of ‘care in the community’ – the mentally ill who failed to adjust to life outside an institution, but who hadn’t Pongo’s resources to cope on their own.   And then there were the children – the runaways and those leaving care at 16 – who in the late eighties had their right to claim benefits taken away from them.

By then I was working in an office on Kingsway in central London.  I will never forget the drift of homeless people that seemed, night by night, to move further north from the river, starting on the Strand and moving their way up Kingsway until, by dusk, every doorway would be occupied by a huddled form under a threadbare blanket or a piece of scavenged cardboard.

To walk south over Waterloo Bridge towards the National Theatre was even more heartbreaking.  Within spitting distance of the champagne-swilling excesses of the Square Mile, a cardboard city mushroomed. There hard-core, old-style homeless men slept alongside children who didn’t look old enough to be allowed out on their own – never mind to be living on the streets.

Gradually things changed.  Policies – some well-meant and some ruthless – gradually reduced the numbers of rough sleepers. And in the boom years of the noughties, the number of homeless genuinely reduced.

It's on the rise again now, though you might not know it. There are more rough sleepers to be seen in London than there have been for a decade or more - but nothing like the numbers I saw in the late eighties.  Homelessness has become a hidden scourge.

Homelessness today is kids like Alesha in Polly Courtney’s Feral Youth, living under the radar and dodging social services as they sofa-surf from one unsuitable home to another. It’s mothers with small children living in B&Bs with filthy communal kitchens and stairways booby trapped with used hypodermics. It’s hostels for young adults you wouldn’t home a dog in.

This is the legacy of three decades of failing to provide the housing stock that’s needed, runaway rent prices and – now – a government that is hell-bent on reducing the welfare bill by cutting back on housing benefit. Whatever side of the fence you sit – the three of those together makes for a toxic mix.

Back in 1966, Ken Loach made Cathy Come Home – a film about a young woman forced into homelessness.  It helped to launch the charity Shelter and brought about a change in the law that  gave a duty to local councils to house vulnerable women and children.

We need another Cathy Come Home . We need to change the narrative from ‘workless scroungers claiming thousands in housing benefit’ to something that reveals the true picture of homelessness in the 21st Century. And we need to do it before it’s too late for kids like Alesha.

Christmas seems like a good time to start.

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