The housing charity Shelter has published a report revealing a picture of homelessness in England. More than 80,000 children face spending Christmas in temporary accommodation, a 10-year high. In the context of a government crowing about job creation and the economy “healing”, this may appear shocking. As someone who was homeless for a year, I do not find the figures in the least surprising. Nor, I should emphasise, are they entirely representative. They are simply a snapshot of the families that currently fall under a local authority’s restrictive definition of homeless. They do not take into account people dependent on the charity and sofa of a friend or relative, nor those who hide their status in shame – over 40% of rough sleepers hide their circumstances, just like I did.
Before I became destitute, while life was still sweet and carefree, it was simply easier to enjoy one’s existence while thinking of deprivation as a vague concept and ascribing it to fecklessness,laziness or inferiority of some sort. Reality bursts that bubble. Once you accept that someone’s starving 100m from where you’re throwing food away, life becomes morally complicated.
There is a psychological imperative for people latching on to the idea that UK poverty is not real; that homelessness is a lifestyle choice; that food banks are supply driven. State and media rhetoric which, to a large extent, designates poor people as deserving or undeserving, feeds into this denial. One side of the argument projects on our psyche an image of the poor, carefully perpetuated by chatshow hosts, exploiting the system to live an easy life on benefits. The other counter-imposes a picture of faultless, Madonna-like mothers with babes in arm, in squalid conditions. Both are unhelpful, because they allow one to believe that most are the former and exceptions should be made for the latter. The truth is, there are saints and there are sinners, but the vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle.
Most people’s journey to becoming homeless, myself included, deserves neither approbation nor censure. Unforeseen circumstances combined with some bad choices put me there. I take responsibility for those choices, but it is irrationally cruel to deny that life – health, security, family – includes elements of unpredictability. I made plenty of mistakes while financially secure; the fat of a generous monthly salary absorbed them. I made fewer mistakes once my finances began to decline, but each and every one was punished with severity. Poverty is not unforgivable. It is unforgiving. A friend recently described the situation of moving from shelter to shelter with her kids: “Things wear out and don’t get replaced. You wear out and there’s nothing to replace.”
While I was sofa-surfing, relying on the charity of those around me, the state refused to help. My circumstances were simply not desperate enough, even though my trajectory was utterly predictable. By the time I became properly homeless, I had become so itinerant that I couldn’t demonstrate a “sufficient local connection” to any council. And that is my point. It is much more expensive to rescue someone who has fallen through the safety net than to fix the fabric of the net. “We’ve given councils nearly £1bn to tackle homelessness and to support people affected by the welfare reforms, so I am very clear that they should be fully able to meet their legal responsibility,” says housing minister Kris Hopkins. We gave a billion pounds. We did our best.
A minister acts within the confines of the political space we permit. There is an intellectual inconsistency to supporting measures that exile people to the desert of poverty, then shedding a tear during the season of goodwill for those who find themselves there. We deny the existence of such misery, refuse to let it inform our political choices and then wring our hands at the reality. Homelessness doesn’t just happen. Cuts in local authority budgets and mental health services, police budgets unable to cope with domestic violence, an arbitrary benefit cap, a penalty on spare rooms, the sale and lack of replenishment of social housing stock, the hardening of rules on squatting – all these things make it happen.
It is not enough to get a pang of guilt around Christmas time, when a charity forces us to face the reality of people living in abject poverty. We are the seventh richest country in the world. The shame of poverty is all of ours to share, all year round.