Yesterday, it was both World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day – coincidence? The two issues are often intertwined, though while giving both a ‘day’ might seem like altruistic recognition, what does such an event actually do other than briefly inspire a temporary conscience? At one time, whole years used to be devoted to the raising of awareness; I recall the Year of the Child and the Year of the Disabled in the late 70s/early 80s. But 24 hours? There was probably a lot of online trending, and no doubt wristbands would have been worn had they been made available, imbuing those who wore them whilst tweeting with a sense of entitlement to a compassionate pat on the back. Once the caring sharing interlude expired, however, there was probably a return to the topic of someone being voted off ‘The X Factor’ or speculating over the relationship between a wealthy, vacuous bint and a wealthy, vacant himbo.
Homelessness cuts across all age groups, though the young are joining the ranks at record rates. Statistics from youth homelessness charity Centrepoint claim there are an estimated 80,000 homeless people in the UK under the age of 40, with upwards of 30,000 denied local authority assistance due to slashed funding. Another statistic from the same source estimates a rise of 12,000 in the last couple of years amongst the young; they also reckon 88% have some form of mental illness, with many emanating from broken or abusive homes as well as limited local authority care.
The gradual closure of the children’s home system, along with that other institution with the blackened reputation, the mental home, has placed tremendous pressure upon foster carers and the public services that can no longer rely on the kind of government subsidies they desperately need. Several thousand homeless young people are currently applying for some form of assistance, but what becomes of the 30,000 who don’t receive it? Whereas many of the youngsters of no fixed abode regularly travel from one friend’s sofa to another, there are others for whom the pavement is the only option, not to mention all the dangers that can bring with it. Yet this is a country with 700,000 empty houses.
A couple of years ago, an investigation by the Guardian found that a third of the mansions on the so-called ‘Billionaire’s Row’ of The Bishops Avenue near Hampstead Heath were standing empty, some of which had been unoccupied for over a quarter-of-a century. Many were purchased by Saudi Sheiks decades ago, never inhabited and allowed to fall into disrepair, ironically creating the uniquely obscene juxtaposition of one of the country’s most expensive residential neighbourhoods being as derelict as a rundown council estate, both as awful a comment on the state of the nation as each other. This is a capital city where some boroughs boast houses priced at more than twenty times the average salary, and its streets remain home to thousands of people whose roof is a shop doorway.
Beyond London, the situation isn’t much better. An eye-witness to it in Northampton town centre early yesterday morning reported to me a Victorian level of street residents stirring from another night deprived of a roof over their heads, a scene straight out of Dickens transplanted to the twenty-first century. The invisible men and women who often only catch the eye if they have a canine companion were ones I first noticed upon my inaugural foray into (of all places) Westminster forty years ago; it was an uncomfortable encounter with a side of life new to me then, but one that has now become so depressingly familiar wherever in the country one happens to be that even our best intentions cannot always help but render the sight an accepted part of the urban wallpaper.
Homelessness and the chronic lack of affordable housing is arguably the biggest crisis facing today’s society, yet it remains relatively low on the list of priorities for either government or government-in-waiting if the recent party conferences are anything to go by. A good deal of talking is done when the subject raises its head, but no administration of any colour has put such talk into action for generations. And if a frontbench member of the ‘people’s party’ such as the appalling Emily Thornberry can sneer at the working-class with a white van tweet, God only knows what she must think of the homeless. Perhaps she also steps over them when exiting the opera, as Andrew Mitchell famously quipped.
The ageing gentleman of the highway was a traditional music-hall character and one that had remarkable longevity within popular culture, manufacturing an archaic archetype – usually Irish – of a meths-quaffing, shambling, bearded tramp with long, unkempt hair, a battered hat and a dirty overcoat that remained the popular image of homelessness for generations. It was probably only ever one example of the homeless population all along, but it is utterly irrelevant today. Spirits were once consumed to block out the misery, whereas other stimulants are more likely to provide the same service in 2016. The association of street beggars with illicit substances, and the conviction that every penny begged will contribute towards the next score, is rooted in a degree of truth where a minority are concerned, though the widespread belief that all are in the same game probably reflects a widespread ignorance of just how much ‘drugs’ cost, let alone actual awareness of why anyone would feel the need to indulge in the first place.
Something has to be done about this pressing problem, as it has for decades; but underfunded local authorities and charities cannot do it on their own, especially when the powers-that-be almost seem convinced the state of affairs is due to Providence rather than avoidable circumstance, just as their forebears did a couple of hundred years ago. There is no more shameful example of inequality within this country than the fact that so many of its citizens have nowhere to live. It’s just not good enough, Theresa and Jezza. Get your bloody fingers out.
© The Editor