Norbert Lawrie looks at why each Christmas thousands of homeless people - including children - endure things that no one should have to experience in this day and age
As we sit-down and get stuck into our festive lunch on that great day, TV news will no doubt bring us the tidings of just how the homeless in their thousands are coping with their lives, despite as always; there being no room at the Inn. This is always a favorite story with the media, along with highlighting how the troops serving far away oversees were mentioned in the Queens annual address to the nation.
I have no doubt she will also mention young George and the expected arrival of a younger brother or sister in the new year, another addition to this expanding family whose good fortune (by hook or by crook) it is to be born into such wealth and privilege. They will always have a roof over their heads, the best food and medical attention that money can buy or rather what you and I pay for.
The plight of homeless people has become an issue very close to my heart over many years, and like many others I have tried to lift the profile of what is after all nothing more than a capitalist scandal.
This Christmas, in Britain, there are record numbers of people who will not have a safe place that they can call home - including about 90,000 children according to Shelter.
It is now a fact that under David Cameron and the Coalition of the rich, the situation has been made deliberately much worse and is set to snowball as we move into the new year.
The true extent of such hardship and poverty in Britain and its impact is conveniently ignored by mainstream politicians who seem more concerned about their own expenses and pay.
As we arrive in the middle part of the second decade of the 21st century, it’s as if the hands on the clock have been turned backwards. Some things change but despite all our technological advances, much, very much just stays the same - as I’m constantly reminded when I visit and spend time with my many friends who live their lives out on the cold streets of London, the capital city of the fifth richest nation in the world.
The street homeless
The people that I speak of are the visible homeless that no one seems to see. Their numbers are hard to place a finger on, they live in hostels, squats (commercial buildings) and a growing number sleep rough on our streets. Keeping warm in winter is a battle waged every year by the rough sleeper in his or her skip, but truth is every season brings its problems when you’re forced to share the outdoor life with the birds, urban foxes and city rats.
A great many of my friends on the street live and rely solely upon street handouts and day centres for food, laundry and bathing facilities. Many refuse to claim entitled benefits, preferring not to be a part of a welfare system that incessantly strong-arms the unemployed into taking low paid employment with the use of sanctions and penalties.
How can anyone not be moved by the spectacle and lines of men and women who gather every night in London’s Lincoln Inn Fields for a meal provided by the Hari Krishnas or a Jamaican Christian Church? On some occasions I’ve counted up to three hundred people who arrive hours in advance with all their worldly possessions rammed into rucksacks, carrier bags, sleeping bags.
This is no easy life. The streets are fraught with danger for many homeless people; over the last few years people living on the streets have become more vulnerable to violence and attack; this threat can be from other street users and from those who are intoxicated through alcohol and/or drugs.
Rough sleepers are 13 times more likely to experience crime and 47 times more likely to be the victim of theft. Crime, and the perception of crime, can play a major role in the decisions of rough sleepers in not only where they sleep but also where they take part in daytime activities. Many rough sleepers avoid danger and stay clear of violence by using the London night bus service to get some rest. As one friend told me:
“You take the longest route say to Heathrow Airport and back that kills 4 hours and before you know it it’s morning.”
Female rough sleepers are particularly vulnerable to physical attack and abuse, and to protect themselves they tend to be amongst the most hidden.
Rough sleepers are met with a mixture of emotions from the general public, ranging from pity and support to anger and distrust. But one thing almost goes unasked, and that’s why are people, fellow human beings living, existing on our rich streets?
London has seen a big increase in the number of migrant workers left homeless and destitute in the city, without access to benefits or housing help. The effects of the economic downturn, as well as a legal block preventing migrants from certain countries claiming benefits, has meant increased numbers of rough sleepers in the city from eastern European countries.
Every year an official head count of rough sleepers within Westminster is carried out and recorded for official purposes. In recent years allegations of tactics designed to reduce the figure have been made. The Simon Community, an organisation that works and lives with the homeless on the streets, undertook its own street headcount one year and found 247 people sleeping rough in the City of Westminster, almost 100 more than official figures state.
The Simon Community along with some rough sleepers have claimed that diversionary tactics were put in place days before the street count took place. A number of known rough sleepers were offered travel warrants by Police and community officers, in an attempt to transfer them out of the area. In a BBC report, the Metropolitan Police denied the allegation that they were shifting people out of the area, saying that they regularly issue travel warrants for homeless people, particularly during the winter months.
Allegations have also been made that local authorities exerted harsh measures against homeless people, according to the Simon Community. They received information about a group of homeless people being physically moved out of the Victoria Street area by Police. Similarly, there are accusations that doorways used to bed down in were hosed by cleaners to make them unusable.
There have been claims that charities were also instructed to make beds available in their hostels ahead of the count, and emergency accommodation was opened up on the week the count took place.
The homeless streets
The Wall Street Journal reported; that in the London Borough of Westminster, where Mayfair is located, homes can cost up to £50 million. Yet Westminster is fifth among London's 33 boroughs in the number of unoccupied properties. In 2008, 1,737 homes had been vacant for six months or more, the third highest number among all London boroughs, according to the Empty Homes Agency, a non-profit group that seeks to put empty homes back into use.
The high concentration of rundown, empty homes in posh Mayfair, with its ornately gated properties, is striking. Before World War II it was the hub of aristocratic society, its prominent place on the British Monopoly board is a demonstration of its modern-day image.
Mayfair's homeowners aren't down on their luck, far from it. Rather, these properties serve as investments for owners who pay the bills to keep them empty – something the neighbours and council object to when the homes fall into disrepair.
Many owners decline to rent the homes due to local council tax rules, with tax on properties at a lower rate if they are empty and unfurnished, which is a loophole that helps the filthy rich.
The whole business of empty homes came to light a few years back when a group of young squatters (when it was still legally permitted) occupied two £20 million homes on Park Lane overlooking Hyde Park. Before the squatters settled in, the homes had been empty for seven years. During that time, the Council had tried three times to contact their British Virgin Islands based property owners: Red Line Ltd. and Perfectil Ltd.
Following two years of silence, the property owners surfaced once newspaper reports outed the squatters.
The result of such media reports has meant that wealthy homeowners have turned to private security firms to protect their empty London properties from squatters at a cost of up £2,600 a week while according to the Empty Homes Agency there are more than 80,000 empty properties in London.
In the recession this is one business that may prove to be very lucrative as a growing number of homes are bought by foreign investors who want a secure asset but continue to live elsewhere.
In our daily press we read much about the housing problem, about lost homes repossessed by the banks and the so-called housing shortage, with thousands languishing for years on the council housing waiting list or simply held hostage to the private landlords. The cry goes out for more affordable homes or a proposed programme of public works that embraces house building as the desired solution, peddled by those who still offer the dried-out old fig leaf of failed reform.
Over a hundred years ago Frederick Engels wrote in The Housing Question:
'This shortage is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it.'
And then Engels gave an answer to this age old problem. He said, and I repeat, to end the housing shortage 'there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.'
March for Homes
12:00 noon, Saturday 31 January 2015
Elephant & Castle, 119 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BB
- Control rents
- Cut rents not benefits
- Secure tenancies for all
- Stop demolition of quality council homes
- Build new council houses
Unite housing Workers LE1111 is supporting & assisting in the organising.
Called by Defend Council Housing and South London People's Assembly.
March for Homes Facbook event
Norbert Lawrie is a former homeless advice worker and campaigner of many years standing. He has been an executive member of CHAR the former campaign for single homeless people, and has been instrumental in gaining council tenancies for hundreds of homeless people including children living in hostel accommodation. Norbert maintains an ongoing relationship with the London street homeless and the squatting movement.