For the last two years I’ve lived in Switzerland, close to Zurich. In a country of exceptional living standards and well-funded social services, homeless (though it still exists), is barely noticeable. One of my students even described it as ‘being illegal’, implying that whenever somebody is seen they are immediately looked after.
In the UK, and in my new home of London, we have a slightly different approach.
300,000 people, or one in every 200 people in the UK are homeless. 4,500+ sleep rough. One whole quarter of that reside in London.
Those are truly terrifying numbers, but the visual evidence we see on a daily basis are worse still as they bring the numbers to life and give them a face. Within my own routine, on the way to the gym at 7am every morning there are the same two men in the same spot, no matter the freezing temperatures of late. At work every monday, a local charity member brings three local homeless men in for a coffee. In central London they are seemingly everywhere and no street seems too unpopular to not be the temporary home to someone. Outside of underground stations the same people sit with a cardboard sign, day, after week, after month.
But society has a problem with homelessness and homeless people. Like a white man insistent he has never gained any privilege from being white, society tries its best to look away from what is certifiable proof of its own failure. But it is nothing more than a societal failure. As problematic as it is to contextualise suffering, middle-class issues such as rail fares pale in comparison to those who have resorted to begging, destitute, hungry and sleeping on cardboard strips. Even those who are not rough sleepers, to be forced out of accommodation due to soaring rents, cuts to housing benefits and stagnated wages, hundreds of thousands of people a day wake up homeless.
It is issues like these which beg the conversation to return to welfare, to affordable rents and wages. As a member of this society I have seen and heard what I have been encouraged to see in a homeless person. I have been sneered at for merely forking out a few pounds to buy the Big Issue, suggesting that I would be ‘funding their addiction’ or ‘encouraging more begging’ to the tune of loose change as if I were a rich white man throwing coins at an African child while strolling through the Congo. Guides use language such as ‘beggars operate here’. Last Monday I discovered that two of the three men brought to our shop by the charity member are former soliders. One of them used to be a professor of history. All former public service workers.
For now, homelessness is on the rise and funding to prevent it is going down. We could well be still in the period of our history where the majority do believe we live in a meritocracy, and these people are where they are due to their own decisions. It could be a significant amount of time before majority opinion switches and the political decision to ignore this failure is scrutinised with all the intensity and shame it deserves. For now, we still walk past them, keen to avoid eye contact and any implied blame for their circumstance.
For now, the numbers go up.
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