At the back end of a cold winter, the UK has witnessed the savage effects of what should be a source of national shame in the world’s sixth largest economy. Over the last few months there have been several stories of homeless people dying on our streets, including on the doorstep of parliament. Could there be a more fitting symbol for the actions of our politicians?
Thatcher once said, “poverty is a personality defect”. This misplaced belief in individual responsibility infects the action taken by her acolytes in Whitehall. Deliberate increases in bureaucracy, benefits sanctions, welfare cuts, all stem from this false belief in individual culpability, from the idea that your situation is in your control and if it’s terrible it’s what you deserve. We live in a meritocracy after all, don’t we?
There is a clear schism between politics and reality. I spoke to Andrew, a Yorkshireman with a politics degree who has been sleeping on the streets for five years. His mother fell ill, so he left work to look after her. In this period he nearly died himself from a seizure and by the time his mother had recovered and he was able to get back on his feet, his girlfriend who had previously said he could live with her left him.
Andrew had nowhere to turn so he began roaming the country and is now in Exeter. Gaps in his employment history due to illness made finding a job difficult and he had no option but to sleep rough. This is not a situation of his own making, yet the government continues to treat the problem of rough sleeping as such. Andrew reckons he’ll be able to get off the street one day but the process is daunting because of the hoops he’ll have to jump through just to formally exist in society, let alone find a home.
Andrew says he’s happier than most. He’s something of an intellectual; we chat about Albert Camus and what artificial intelligence will mean for the future. He is educated, has sound mental health and isn’t addicted to drugs. Even for someone with his peace of mind, however, life on the streets is painful. His voice wavers as he describes a drunk who beat him mercilessly over a minor dispute.
Thousands of homeless people suffer quietly as a direct consequence of government policy. In Exeter there’s actually quite good support, better than in most areas. Andrew says he doesn’t have to worry about food. But this is not evidence of a compassionate state. The third sector has stepped in to fill the void left by the dogma, cruelty and ineptitude of the Tory government. Unfortunately it can only really treat the symptoms, while we continue to ignore the causes.
Thatcher’s twisted logic is at the core of Conservative ideology – George Osborne even boasted of being “more radical than Thatcher”. Data from the government itself show that rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010, a damning indictment of the policies of the coalition and its successors. Although Conservative zealotry in shrinking the state has done considerable damage without any discernible reward for the taxpayer, they aren’t the only ones at fault. Housebuilding under New Labour consistently failed to meet targets, homelessness and rough sleeping levels were still high and the ultra-rich were allowed to mothball homes. We have been sleepwalking into this crisis for too long. It is time we woke up.
The state’s radicalism shouldn’t exist to create misery on an industrial scale. It should prevail in the ability to try new things to solve problems. Advocates of universal basic services argue we could eliminate homelessness and grow the economy through work projects to modernise and expand infrastructure and guarantee a basic living standard.
A quasi-basic-income trial was held in London by charity Broadway, and it offered heart-warming results. 13 veterans of the street, some with over 40 years of life experience on the square mile’s pavements, were each given £3,000. Expectations were low, but after the first year, an average of only £800 had been spent. Seven of the men had roofs over their heads, two more were on housing registers and some of them had jobs, as gardeners and cooks.
Orwell once wrote that “poverty annihilates the future”. Andrew showed this when he talked about the difficulties he was facing in formally existing. Basic income can give the future back to the homeless. Ideas this radical aren’t the only options; cities in Brazil mobilise willing homeless people to help collect recyclables. The homeless get paid, it helps the environment and allows people to meaningfully participate in society when aren’t typically able to do so. The state has radical potential, but that potential should be used for good. If we continue to allow it to be weaponised by an ideological elite, things can only get worse.
Olly Haynes is a Labour member at the University of Exeter.