From my study I can see the common with its tall trees, sweeping seagulls and dog walkers. It looks like a Christmas card, frosty, silvery and lovely. But, when you step out, the cold cuts into the skin and eyes water. Yesterday a couple with a young child had an accident outside our house, nothing serious, but the RAC had to be called to tow the car away. I asked them to come in and warm up. At first they declined, but after about an hour, frozen stiff, they rang the doorbell. Imagine then the suffering of those people sleeping in doorways. How many die of hypothermia? How many get chest infections or pneumonia? How many are mentally ill? We don’t have names or even numbers for such ‘rough sleepers’. We do know, because we see many more of them, that the numbers have gone up shockingly in London, Birmingham, Bath, Oxford, Cambridge, most British cities.
We have no Charles Dickens to awaken our consciences about these wretched souls. Compassion for them can be in short supply. Over the season of goodwill, Russell Lucas Allen was sleeping with his dog in the doorway of Debenhams in Portsmouth, when, he alleges, he was drenched in water by security staff. The recorded temperature was minus 3 degrees centigrade. Allen is a former site manager who possibly never imagined he would end up destitute and despised. Only 8000 people, thus far, have signed an online petition calling for those responsible to be disciplined. Over a million people signed an online petition to stop the BBC from sacking Jeremy Clarkson. Just saying.
The huddled men and women we see ( and mostly walk by) on the streets are the visible tragedies. Thousands more are today without decent housing and struggling to live another day with dignity and hope. The government’s own figures indicate that in the last year there has been a 9% jump in the number of those bureaucratically labelled ‘the unintentionally homeless’.( Question to the Department of Communities and Local Government: Who are those feckless and foolish people making themselves ‘intentionally’ homeless? ). Look back further and you find that the number has gone up by 55% since December 2010. That is six years. According to the charity Shelter, there are over 170,000 homeless people in London alone- a shameful, staggering figure.
Among those now seeking affordable accommodation are workers on dirt low wages. Aditya Chakrabortty, one of Britain’s most assiduous and searching journalists exposed this major yet well hidden scandal in The Guardian in late December.; ‘…they are as real as you or me- and they are fast growing in number. They are people who are homeless even though they are working’. Their employers are not sweatshop factory owners but Starbucks, Eat, Pret, McDonalds, Pubs, delivery companies, even local authorities. Chakrabortty met some of them in a temporary hostel aptly named ‘Shelter from the Storm’. Martin, apparently works for Islington Council taking disabled kids to school. He has had to sleep on park benches. Nicola works for a warehouse for Greggs the friendly baker. Its shareholders received over 43-7 million pounds in dividends. She was evicted in June and has been homeless ever since.
Meanwhile a glut of millionaires and billionaires now populate our capital and fine suburbs and desperately seek luxury goods to show off their wealth. Suppliers are happy to oblige. If you have more cash than sense, you can now buy a most exceptional doll’s house for £25, 000 and a crystal covered rocking horse for their spoilt brats. (Channel4, The World’s Most Expensive Toys, December 2016) Oh and if you buy a luxury flat in a 50 storey tower at One Blackfriars, London, you can get to use a ‘snow cabin’ with artificial snow, also a fake golf course and whisky bar, a wine tasting room and a ‘rainforest shower’. Nice life if you can buy one.
Political decisions and priorities created this disgraceful inequality. New Labour believed hyper-capitalism would help fund a decent welfare state. Up to a point this worked but Blair and Co should have been more overtly concerned about the unequal and divided society they presided over. The coalition government had neo-liberals such as Vince Cable and Nick Clegg happily backing hard Tory social policies. They let social housing collapse in urban areas and refused to impose rent controls. That indifference to the plight of those who can’t buy or rent continues apace. These people are the collateral damage produced by a ruinous economic model. Flats are being built all over these isles. They can only be afforded by those with substantial earnings or savings. Those without either do not matter.
Last year Britain was declared the fifth richest nation in the world. It can and yet chooses not to feed and house its most vulnerable people. With so much patriotism swilling around at present, may I humbly ask: is this the great Britain you are proud of?
International Business Times 29/12/15