It’s 1994, and I’m at Paddington station with my mum, queuing for the ticket machine. I don’t know Britain is experiencing a desperate homelessness crisis because I’m 10 and don’t yet see the point of watching the news. I’m from a small, cute village just outside Slough and am watching the city people with interest – this woman, for example, is wearing an actual fur coat, like Cruella de Ville. I’ve never seen anyone stride to the front of the queue like that to demand to know what’s holding us all up. She is approached by a short man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a denim jacket, darkened with dirt. He cheerfully asks if she can spare 10p so he can get a cup of tea. She waves him away with an irritated look, and he leaves quickly. She rejoins her friend in the queue, throws her hands up in the air and says, “I’d do anything to help him if it wasn’t drugs or alcohol, d’you know what I mean?”
“Would you?” I don’t say, because I’m 10 and I don’t pick fights with adults who look like Disney villains.
I remember “it’s drugs and alcohol” being a much-repeated trope when discussing homelessness in the early 1990s, yet the government response was to earmark housing, fund services and launch mental health initiatives. And it worked. Until the recession hit, there was a significant fall in the number of people sleeping on the streets. Now, rough sleeping is sharply on the rise again; on any given night in England, there are an estimated 4,134 people sleeping rough. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of people sleeping rough in England shot up by 134%. With Christmas fast approaching and a cold snap on the way, concerns abound that with rising numbers of homeless people and a steady drop in money to tackle it, this could be “the worst winter for over two decades”. Many have linked the rise in homelessness to austere Tory policies; Big Issue editor John Bird cited a combination of local council service cuts, paltry funding of homeless charities, and inadequate care for sufferers of mental health.
Five people were kind enough to share with me their stories of being made homeless this year, and there were striking similarities among them. Drugs and alcohol featured, but not as the cause of homelessness. They were usually mentioned when the conversation turned to coping mechanisms for what really binds these interviewees: depression, anxiety and PTSD. Another similarity in their stories is the feeling of being cast aside when seeking help from the local council or police. In a nation which purports to have social security, interviewees found themselves failed by the government and saved by a charity – which themselves are increasingly underfunded.
As one interviewee points out, when it comes to service cuts, “it’s the people at the bottom who suffer”, and benefit sanctions are a well-worn route to finding yourself on the streets. But homelessness is not just a consequence for the very poor; one thing every interviewee, case worker and charity seems to agree on: abuse, mental health issues and bad luck have no respect for social class. Homelessness really can happen to anyone.
For a piece I did for the Guardian, people share their stories of being made homeless in 2017.