Walk through almost any large town or city in the UK, and one thing is visibly clear: a massive increase in the number of homeless people and rough sleepers.
According to official figures, in 2018 there were 1,283 rough sleepers in London alone, while throughout the UK that number was estimated at 4,677 – 165 percent higher than in 2010, and likely to be an underestimate. The UK's homelessness problem is becoming harder to ignore, but too many of us are doing our best to do just that.
There is also a crisis of hidden homelessness taking place behind closed doors. According to a survey by English Housing from earlier this year, overcrowding in rented housing has increased to the highest level since government records began in 1996, both in social housing and privately rented homes. Thousands more are quietly spending extended periods of time sleeping on friends' sofas, unable to find stable affordable housing. Hundreds of thousands more live under constant threat of eviction in a system that prioritises landlords over tenants and property over people.
The Conservative government has spent their time in power systematically shitting on the weakest and most vulnerable members of society – a cornerstone of Conservative policy, lest we forget. Welfare cuts, soaring, unchecked rent and a shortage of affordable housing – combined with the destruction of existing social housing, replaced by (often empty) luxury accommodation – have all led to our housing crisis.
Faced with the fallout from nine years of austerity, Londoners are now hearing dehumanising announcements on public transport telling us not to "encourage beggars", as increasingly desperate people left with no other options have taken to walking through tube carriages asking commuters for money. It is obvious that these notices are not for the benefit of those begging, but rather a way to further vilify the homeless and make commuters feel comfortable about ignoring the more unfortunate among us. Such announcements also further the sense of mistrust that is already prevalent around the homeless, tying into myths around homeless people being scammers and criminals not really in need of money.
I have written before about the patronising way we often treat the homeless, as if they are children or idiots unable to manage their own money, and have ended up on the streets due to their inability to properly manage their money, rather than due to unfortunate circumstances often out of their control. Homelessness is a looming possibility for huge swathes of the population, with research repeatedly showing that the average person is only one or two pay checks away from homelessness.
I meet Ian outside Morrison's in Peckham, where he spends most of his day sitting on the ground hoping passers-by will give him money so he can eat. At 52, he's been on the streets for 16 years, having moved down to London from Newcastle looking for work and "ending up with the wrong crowd". Following an accident involving a concrete mixer that led to five operations, Ian has severe nerve damage in his leg. He also has stage two lung cancer. Although he has somewhere to sleep at the moment due to his condition, he has nowhere to go in the day, and no money to live on.
"[The housing association] was supposed to forward my letters on to my new address, but they didn't, so I missed PIP appointments I didn’t even know about. All my money got stopped, so now I gotta do this in order to eat," he tells me. "I'm in a situation where I’m just trying to survive, really. I shouldn't have to do this because of my illness, but I’m having to. Some people look at me and say, 'Get a job,' and all that, but that's easier said than done, isn't it? If they sit and talk to me they might understand my situation and see it a different way. They'd understand then. But they don't."
The tendency to ignore homeless people and treat them as invisible is both a product of the narrative around rough sleepers – myths that frame them all as scammers, substance abusers and criminals – and our increasingly alienated and individualistic lives. Many homeless people find that the most upsetting and degrading part of their already incredibly tough lives is being ignored. Even if you can’t give money, you can acknowledge personhood – simply making eye contact and saying no is better than pretending the person reduced to begging for money does not exist at all because their existence makes you uncomfortable.
Vanessa, who spends most of her days sitting outside Peckham Rye station asking passers-by for change, found herself on the streets after her husband locked her out of their home one day. I ask her what she thinks about the tube announcements.
"If someone is begging, they're finding it hard to make ends meet," she says. "I think those announcements inadvertently end up encouraging other behaviour, like street robbery, knife crime... setting people up, people being robbed at cash points. It's better to have someone begging. Begging isn't easy – it takes you a long time to ask for money, and a lot of courage."
During the 20 minutes I'm sitting with her, not a single person so much as looks her way.
The increase in rough sleepers has led to some truly bizarre "solutions" to Britain’s homelessness problem. From questionably-named organisations selling pre-paid bundles that tie into our collective obsession with our money being spent as effectively as possible, to stab-proof coats that can be turned into sleeping bags, homelessness and our attitudes to those less fortunate is not being tackled at the root, but rather being plastered over. Stab-proof coats for the homeless should not exist, because we should not live in a culture that has dehumanised the most vulnerable to an extent that people feel comfortable urinating on, assaulting and killing them.
Idil, a 21-year-old student, has been homeless for about four years, after her family was removed from their temporary housing.
"I just had a suitcase of stuff and went wherever my mum told me to," she says. "We moved from place to place, staying with distant relatives… we were in some pretty awkward situations and my mum has developed mental health issues. I had to take a more active role in sorting out housing, while at the same time doing my A2 exams."
Idil is currently at university, but has nowhere to go in the summer holidays, and also has to provide for her mum and family back home. Many of her friends have no idea about her situation: "I’m in a constant state of worry about my living situation… I can’t think or enjoy anything else. I haven’t told many people [because] I don’t want pity from my friends or for them to be thinking about it constantly. There’s no point unless they can help me, and none of my friends can do that, so I might as well just get on."
She brings up some of the common misconceptions around homelessness: "People think being homeless means I sleep on the street, or that it’s just temporary and the government will sort everything as long as I go to the right agency. Basically, that I’m being lazy."
Sasha, who works part-time as a nanny, has been staying with friends and her boyfriend since being suddenly evicted five months ago. She has been unable to find her own place because "I don't have savings or any pool of money that I can dip into for deposits, plus I can’t do agency, credit and reference checks as I’m 'off the grid' for a number of reasons π so my pool of finding places is limited to sublets".
I ask Sasha what she wishes people understood about the challenges faced by people in her situation. "I work 10 to 11-hour shifts and commute an hour each way, so I leave the bed or sofa I’m staying in at 7AM and don’t usually get back until 7PM. All the time I’m working I have to be organising where I will wash and sleep."
Although she is "lucky" enough to have people to stay with, there are other, often overlooked stresses to this lifestyle: the stress of feeling like a burden; the added cost of having to eat most of your meals out as you don’t feel comfortable taking over someone else’s kitchen; and the simple things that so many of us take for granted: "I haven't been alone in ages… I miss just resting by myself.