A woman from the Sunday Times rings. Her voice possesses those quintessentially middle class inflections of the broadsheet journalist. ‘Have you perchance come across a banker sleeping rough?’ she asks. ‘After all, the cuts are hitting us all. Homelessness doesn’t discriminate – anyone can become homeless’.
We have been here before and a familiar ritual ensues. I walk down three floors to talk with our Street Rescue Team which works on the streets with rough sleepers. ‘Any bankers out there yet’ I ask. ‘Afraid not’ I’m told. ‘We’re working with a lot of people who have done casual work in bars, an ex-security guard and a guy who used to be a roofer, and a shed-load of people who have been unemployed all their life, but we’re fresh out of bankers and are not expecting a new stock in any time soon’. Rueful smiles all round.
It made me reflect again on the assertion, frequently made, that anyone can become homeless. If only we could genuinely claim that homelessness is indeed an experience that can randomly hit anyone, regardless of class and income. But the reality is that homelessness, and especially its most extreme manifestation, rough sleeping, is highly discriminating. The evidence we have is that the vast majority of rough sleepers come from social classes D and E. Where they have had jobs they have been of the semi and unskilled manual variety. Occasionally we also come across a few C2s – skilled manual workers. In short, the people we meet were frequently experiencing poverty long before they became rough sleepers. Even those from central and Eastern Europe, currently comprising over a quarter of rough sleepers in the capital are predominantly from poor rural communities.
As an outreach worker in the 1980s, the middle class rough sleepers I met remain memorable because they were atypical. One such person was Robert Andrews, a dapper former lecturer in electronics who persisted in dressing in a suit and was inseparable from his battered briefcase. Robert suffered from ‘mental health issues’ and spent his days in the House of Commons, speaking to various MPs. Mrs Thatcher’s PPS at the time, Michael Alison, showed him inordinate respect and kindness. During weekday evenings Robert played the arcades around Piccadilly and made enough money to book into a half-decent hotel in Bloomsbury every weekend where he stored an ancient type-writer. During the week he dozed fitfully at night on an upturned milk crate inside a telephone kiosk on Embankment Place.
We intone the mantra that anyone can become homeless for all the right motives. ‘There for the grace of God’ is the well-meaning sentiment. I sat recently at a gathering of business leaders, all eager to support the homelessness sector; good men wanting to understand and help. From the top table, our host reminded us that ‘any of us could become homeless and that we are all just two pay-checks away from homelessness’. In the front row sat some hard-bitten leaders from homelessness organisations and in my fantasy a thought-bubble arose over each sceptical head which said, ‘I don’t think so’. His intentions were admirable but, let’s be honest, those cuff-links alone would have cost four weeks of Job Seekers’ Allowance.
A typical rough sleeper will often have experienced dysfunctional family relationships, suffered a disrupted education, had early experiences of the criminal justice system, misused alcohol or drugs and suffer from low self-esteem and poor mental health. The most recent statistics for London illustrate the brutal reality: 38% have been in prison, 50% have alcohol problems, 38% drug problems and 35% suffer poor mental health. A rational approach to ending rough sleeping would therefore involve investing in ‘upstream services’- family mediation initiatives, Sure Start children’s centres, prison resettlement services, early intervention mental health projects and substance misuse treatment programmes. Ominously, these are the very services that, across the country, are the focus of some of the most devastating public spending cuts and it seems highly likely that, as these cuts bite, the level of rough sleeping in this country will increase as a consequence. In contrast, I suspect that if the government’s £200 million mortgage rescue scheme was withdrawn, this might lead to more families becoming statutorily homeless and forced to move into temporary accommodation, but would not in any significant way impact on levels of rough sleeping.
So it seems to me a misjudgement to associate rough sleeping primarily with the lack of a home. For the vast majority of people living rough on the street, the complexities of their lives stretch leagues beyond the mere matter of housing. Recently I was in central London, accompanying an outreach worker on her evening shift. The 19 rough sleepers we met she knew well. Most had lived on the streets for months or years and been offered help to secure accommodation on numerous occasions. Each had a different reason for refusing assistance, but if there was a connecting thread between them it was the shocking extent of mental ill health that I witnessed. We crouched down to speak to a middle aged man laying supine under a thin blanket. He was disorientated, smelt badly and his broken English indicated that he was a long way from his home and family. And I reflected that, whilst the stigma of homelessness means that all homeless people may be unequal, it is unquestionably true that some are more unequal that others.
A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing magazine in March 2011