The latest official figures for homelessness show that, in England outside cities, the number of people sleeping rough on any one night is down 2%. But this is where the good news ends. Rough sleeping has increased by 165% since 2010, with rises of as much as 60% in major cities, compared with last year. The homeless charity Crisis’s own research estimates that more than 8,000 people sleep rough on any given night. Meanwhile deaths of homeless people have more than doubled in the past five years.
Most people agree that rough sleeping shouldn’t exist in a healthy society – especially not in the sixth richest economy in the world. But it doesn’t appear out of nowhere; it’s the product of political decisions. So why is it being allowed to continue?
The answer requires an understanding of the ideology that politicians and parts of the media have repeatedly shoved down our throats in recent years. When the Conservatives won back power in 2010 the then secretary of state for the Department for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, declared that he was going to tackle Britain’s “dependency culture” and make sure the benefits system is geared so that “it will always pay for you to take a job”. The supposedly liberal Nick Clegg backed him up saying that William Beveridge’s idea of a welfare state from the “cradle to the grave” had been “distorted”: “Today’s system discourages self-reliance,” he said, “it disincentivises work, it condemns the most disadvantaged in our society to a life on benefits.”
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Since then, parts of the media have gleefully reported on benefit fraudsters or “fake” homeless people begging for money for drugs, while politicians have doubled down on their rhetoric through stricter benefits schemes, encouraging people to rat out anyone cheating the system and calling for homeless people’s tents to be torn down. The coded message is that poverty is a result of bad decisions, and attention is deflected away from structural issues such as stagnant wages, rising living costs or expensive housing.
The end goal of this rhetoric is pure social engineering. The aim is to mould people into the archetypal “good citizen” – a homeowner who makes a pilgrimage to Ikea every few months. This person has the resources to flourish in a market-based economy, allowing the state to step back and play its desired role of estranged parent. It need only come to their aid in an emergency such as through healthcare.
Not everyone can live up to this ideal. Rough sleepers especially are the antithesis to this “good citizen”. But rather than extend a helping hand, the system treats people who struggle the way a cold-hearted mafia boss would: it hangs them out to dry as a warning to others.
People travel to low-paid jobs in expensive, packed trains. They wait weeks for a doctor’s appointment. Their landlord raises their rent for no reason. All the while the wealthiest 1% increase their share of the pie. But the presence of rough sleepers tells people what happens to those who stop conforming. As George Orwell wrote, we have two options: “Serve the money-god or go under.”
But perhaps you are working two low-paid jobs just to pay your extortionate rent and put food on the table for your family. Then you hear that the person you see lying on the street corner every morning has been given a house and an income. It makes a mockery of your struggle, you might think. Why should you continue to strive when others get things handed to them on a plate?
That’s why the only way rough sleeping can be eradicated is through a radical cultural shift that takes everyone with it. This goes beyond targeted policies and gets to the core of what being a citizen means. The fundamentals of life – food, housing, healthcare – should be available unconditionally, regardless of someone’s supposed character or their circumstances.
Until then, people will continue to line our streets, sacrificed at the altar of a broken system.
• Nye Jones is a freelance writer and housing campaigner
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