Volume 5 Number 1
No Home, No Hope?
01 January 1992
Commuters in Western cities are becoming inured to the sight of the young person huddled under a blanket in the railway station. He holds a cardboard notice: `Hungry, broke and homeless'. What can be done? Mike Lowe takes London as a case-study.
Dave is in his mid-twenties and homeless. He spends his days begging in front of a shop in London's West End. His nights, as often as not, are spent in the same place - with only a sleeping bag to keep out the cold. For seven nights a month at most he can have a warm bed in the Centrepoint hostel - a clean place with friendly staff set up exclusively for short-term emergency accommodation. As for other hostels, the only ones with any beds free are miles out of central London, which is where Dave's friends are. He won't go so far.
Last winter a businessman who used to pass Dave each day on his way to work took pity on him. When the snow began to fall this good Samaritan decided that Dave should be in a hostel and spent a frustrating hour on the phone trying to book him in somewhere. Finally in desperation he offered to take Dave back to his home in the countryside until the snow passed.
Eighteen months ago, Dave had a job and was renting a flat with three others. Then `a spot of trouble with the police' earned him a three month sentence for theft. He lost his job and his place in the flat. When he came out of prison he had just £70. By the time he had gone through the procedures for claiming the welfare to which he was legally entitled, his money had run out. With most landlords asking for two or three weeks' rent in advance he found himself on the streets. He could expect virtually no support from the probation service - they concentrate their meagre resources on people who have served longer sentences.
Many minor offenders find themselves homeless. Even crueler are the cases of prisoners who wait for their trials for months and are then acquitted by the court. The disruption to their lives can be devastating, yet they have no claim at all on the support services given to convicted criminals.
London has 75,000 homeless, according to a survey carried out by the University of Surrey on behalf of the Salvation Army in 1990. Of these approximately 2,000 were on the streets, 18,000 in hostels, 30,000 in squats and 25,000 in bed and breakfast accommodation. The majority are male, (80-90 per cent) and single (71 per cent).
My own introduction to the issue came in 1987 when I started helping out at St Martin-in-the-Fields social welfare unit. This well-known baroque church in Trafalgar Square, London, first opened its doors to the homeless during World War I as thousands of soldiers passed through on their way to or from the battlegrounds. Now it caters for 600 people a week with its day centre and its weekend soup kitchen. At the welfare unit we dispensed practical help and advice to around 25 people a day on a one-to-one basis. There I saw everything from the stereotype of the drunken Scotsman to youths with drug problems: from the tragedy of the man who walked out on his wife and home, to the downright wackiness of the man who believed he was God and couldn't understand why people wouldn't grant his requests for money.
Not all the homeless are unemployed. The Surrey University survey found that 29 per cent are working - mostly people in squats or sleeping rough. The jobs tend to be low-paid or occasional work on building sites. But I once came across a youth in his late teens who was working in the prestigious Harrods department store while sleeping out in Lincolns Inn Fields (a favourite haunt for the homeless). He kept his work clothes neatly folded in a large hold-all and used a local public toilet to change and get cleaned up before taking the bus to work. He was hoping to save sufficient money to get into a bedsit.
But the odds were against him. The longer a person is homeless the less they respect themselves, and the harder it becomes to find the motivation to get out of their situation. Roger Shaljean, Director of St Martin-in-the-Fields Social Care Unit will tell you of people who have set out to discover what it was like to be homeless only to find themselves trapped. Novelist George Orwell discovered this while researching his book Down and out in London and Paris.
Shaljean estimates that it may take as little as three weeks for a person to become `institutionalized homeless'. Then the person needs far more than a low-cost flat and a key. Finding a job is hard. Most employers won't consider you if you can't give a home address. Soon the continual rejections lead to a state of depression and the person gives up. They may also lose the motivation to go through the red tape involved in claiming unemployment benefit, and be intimidated by the complexities of trying to find longterm housing. Seventy-six per cent of people on the streets are not on any housing waiting lists.
People become homeless for many reasons. In London people who lose their jobs often cannot keep up high rents and mortgage payments and then lose their homes. Family break-up is another major factor. A family which lived under one roof now needs two. Less obviously, the next generation is often affected as well. A survey of teenagers staying at the Centrepoint emergency hostel showed that 40 per cent had come from children's homes. The Surrey University survey found that 24 per cent of all street homeless said they had never had a home. Forty-three per cent had left home before the age of 15.
Some - no one knows how many - have been sexually abused. As a result they find themselves unable to trust or talk to people. This compounds their isolation, and their problems are more likely to go unnoticed.
Then, of course, there are the mentally ill. A November 1989 survey of homeless men at the St Mungo hostel in Covent Garden, London, found that more than 45 per cent had been treated for mental illness. The mental health charity MIND estimates that there are 3,000 homeless in London with mental health problems. This is commonly blamed on the government policy of closing large psychiatric hospitals in favour of caring for the mentally ill `in the community'. However, MIND believes that this is a wrong assumption. The real issue, they say, is the chronic housing shortage which affects disadvantaged groups disproportionately. Over the-past 20 years, 50,000 people have been discharged from London psychiatric hospitals - most of them, initially at least, into some kind of supported accommodation. But in the same period, only 4,000 extra homes have been produced for them.
Among other common problems are addiction to alcohol and drugs, and people being ostracized because of their sexual preferences. One overtly effeminate man we used to see was regularly beaten up.
John, who is in his 40s but looks 60, worked as a carpenter until his wife died of cancer 18 years ago. The resulting trauma sank him into a depression and he started drinking, lost his job and then his home. Now he begs around Charing Cross station. His hands, wracked with arthritis, clutch a can of lager which eases the pain - but probably caused the arthritis in the first place.
Some of the saddest cases are people who never marry and live with their parents in local government housing until the parents die. Local authority regulations do not allow single people to `inherit' the house they have lived in most of their lives. Even if they are offered alternatives they may find them undesirable or inadequate. So in one moment, they lose their parents and their home.
Several agencies exist to help the homeless. Every December Crisis at Christmas serves three hot meals a day for a week to all comers as well as housing 5-600 people every night. And it doesn't stop there. This massive operation, involving over 1,000 volunteers, gives clothing, medical and dental care, housing advice and personal counselling. Facilities include hairdressers, a chiropodist, TV and books and playing cards. In 1990 they raised £2.5 million, the bulk of which went in grants to 270 hostels and day centres throughout the country.
Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop chain of stores, has started a newspaper to be sold by the homeless. The Big Issue gives those who are motivated a useful income. As well as campaigning on issues related to homelessness, it carries arts reviews and news about what's on.
Other agencies, like Centrepoint and the Salvation Army, provide hostels. There are also housing charities such as the Peabody Trust which provides 12,000 dwellings at affordable rates throughout London.
Most agencies involved with the homeless coordinate activities via the Homeless Network. This minimizes overlap and can pinpoint areas of policy that need to change or be developed.
The biggest problem the agencies face is that unmotivated people tend to get stuck where they are. People move from the streets to hostels and then back to the streets rather than to low-cost flats. Agencies like St Martin's see it as their role to overcome this problem. Their day centre is equipped with a housing officer who tries to move people gradually up and off the streets. If they are on the streets then they should be in a hostel. If in a hostel, then in something more settled, such as lodgings. If in lodgings then they should be looking for a place of their own, either through housing charities or council flats.
Part of the brake on this process is the lack of accommodation. But another factor, according to Shaljean, is that `people do not put sufficient priority on playing the game'. He instanced people getting to interviews too late to get a room. `It may be that there are personal problems, such as an addiction, which are unresolved. Unless the addiction is managed and dealt with, getting the flat would be a waste of time because they would probably lose it again in a couple of weeks.
`We see a tiny number of people for whom the problem is simply one of finding a suitable place. The number of people who would be incapable of handling a place of their own is also tiny.'
Ideally, Shaljean would like to develop St Martin's own intermediate housing, although property prices in London make this unlikely at the moment. They do have one place, bought in 1964. It is a stage up from a hostel. People have a room of their own while sharing some communal facilities, and there is low-level support from two residential staff who otherwise work at St Martin's. People stay there for up to six months before moving on to a place of their own. During this time they have the chance to learn how to look after themselves and do their own cooking.
The philosophy behind the day centre is much the same. Although not a home, there are 'home-like' aspects to it: showers, a laundry, a TV room and a cafe run by enthusiastic volunteers. Although the homeless do not actually prepare the food, they do contribute towards the cost. There is a clothes store where donated clothes can be bought at `jumble sale' prices. It is an attempt to reflect the way things are in the real world. However toiletries like soap and razors are free. Shaljean explains, `For the homeless, facilities to wash are a priority, so we want to make it as easy as possible.'
Because the homeless often lead chaotic lives and don't value their health they may miss medical appointments. So a National Health Service doctor from the nearby Great Chapel Street Medical Centre sees them at St Martin's day centre, leading to a higher treatment rate. A chiropodist also calls twice a week, and there is even a dentist, funded by a grant from Crisis at Christmas.
St Martin's relies heavily on over 100 volunteers who complement the 17 paid staff. Many of these help run the cafe in the day centre. Shaljean observes that `wherever food is being prepared, people will gather and talk. There seems to be something about the process of cooking that makes for good conversation. So having sufficient staff in the canteen, not only to mind the food but to chat in an accepting way is quite invaluable.'
The greatest contact with the clients is in the welfare unit. Often they have a need for clothing, food or money. But this confidential encounter can be used to open the eyes of the client to any options that may be open to them and to try and touch the spiritual and psychological aspects of their situation.
Addicts who want help are referred to support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Where families have broken up, and there is a glimmer of a hope of reconciliation, clients may be encouraged to get in touch with their families, and given help to do so. Those who want more settled accommodation can be referred to the housing officer.
The emphasis is always on gradual resettlement. Shaljean gives credit to the government for recognizing the importance of this approach and making money available to help the voluntary sector with it. In addition, the Department of the Environment has opened up disused buildings throughout London as emergency accommodation. This has paid dividends - the number of street homeless is a third below its peak. But more needs to be done. According to Julia Unwin of the Homeless Network, `Every voluntary sector hostel opened under the government's initiative has been filled within 24 hours.' And the number of homeless is rising again.
Part of the motivation for the government's initiative may be the large number of people begging in central London tourist areas. Sir Bernard Ingham, who was Margaret Thatcher's press secretary for 11 years and has been recently advising Westminster City Council on public relations, has described the homeless as a `blot on the domestic and tourist landscape'.
In fact, begging is a relatively new phenomenon for London. It effectively started in 1988 when the social-security laws were changed so that people under the age of 18 couldn't claim welfare benefits. The government said they should be living at home, be in full-time education or on a youth training scheme. It failed to recognize that many have no home to go to. As Shaljean points out, `This may or may not be the fault of the young person, but fault isn't an entirely useful instrument in this area.' So young people were able to say, `I'm hungry, I'm homeless, I can't claim benefit, I can't get a job, I haven't got anywhere to live'. And the beggars have remained in some way legitimized, even though the government has now retracted its earlier hard-line approach.
Many people are, understandably, reluctant to give money to the homeless, feeling that it is more likely to be spent on a can of lager than on anything useful. London's Evening Standard has suggested a system of `charity vouchers' which people could buy and give to beggars instead of cash. Beggars would be able to redeem these for food. But most caring agencies feel this would be a mistake and would serve only to further institutionalize begging.
`We don't object to somebody who is poor being given a bit of money to get a hamburger in McDonald's,' says Shaljean, `but it's not really changing the circumstances and addressing the problem.' Those who want to help would do better to give money directly to one of the voluntary agencies -`all of whom do a good job and are short of money'.
Some, like Nancy Bancroft, may wish to do more. A retired secondary school teacher, she started helping once a week at St Martin's two years ago, and feels she has gained as much from the experience as the homeless people she has been able to help. `I've always felt a need to help, but I'm only small and a group of down-and-outs can be quite intimidating. This gives me a framework in which I can do something.'
Twenty years ago, Bancroft lost her job and the flat that went with it. `The only difference between me and some of the clients is that I had family and friends who helped me. I was able to go and live with my parents. It was awkward and inconvenient: I'd got a flat-full of furniture I didn't know what to do with, but I knew I'd got a roof over my head.'
At some point in our lives most of us face the kind of crises that put people on the streets. If we cope, it is because family and friends support us. Bancroft agrees: when she works with the homeless she is able to say, `There, but for the grace of God go I'
What can be done to prevent homelessness? More housing and an end to the speculation that has pushed up property prices would help. And there is room for more generosity and support for people leaving prison. Our welfare system needs more flexibility so that people in need are not prevented by red tape from getting help until it is too late, if at all.
But there are deeper questions. One common thread is homeless people's experience of isolation, which is far deeper than any camaraderie that exists on the streets. In some cases the person has alienated those who might have helped. Those who say that the homeless are to blame for their plight can always find examples to support their claim. And ex-offenders like Dave do bear some responsibility. But at another level the homeless are victims of a lack of love and community - which our society seems to value less than wealth and success. Nothing less than a reversal of our values can end homelessness.
No one knows how many people are homeless in the world. The International Year of Shelter for the Homeless made a guess at 100 million - but that's probably on the low side. Experts prefer to talk about two billion who are poorly housed with inadequate access to water and sanitation.
The homeless are often missed by government censuses. So the only way to estimate numbers is to go out onto the streets and count bodies. There is also the problem of definition: one man's cardboard box isanother man's shanty dwelling. Some estimates count those living in hostels and squats as homeless. Others don't - and, of course, many countries prefer not to publicize their homelessness problem.
Depending on who you talk to, the number of homeless in the USA is anything from 567,000 to four million. The British charity Shelter estimates that there were 364,000 homeless in 1988; while in India an estimated half-a-million sleep on the streets every night in Calcutta alone.
Getting off the streets
A year ago Frank Siddle (above) lived in hiding in a wooden leanto behind a derelict bed-andbreakfast hotel. With only dogs for company he was, he says, `slowly becoming a vegetable'. Now he has a job with British Rail and a flat; and he says he has got his confidence back. `If I walk into a pub now I don't have to fake any more.'
According to the Evening Standard he was helped by the London Enterprise Agency, formed 18 months ago by a group of Britain's top businesses who felt they had a moral responsibility towards the homeless. Their pilot scheme was simplicity itself. Twenty-four single homeless people, including Siddle, were offered training and accommodation. They were guaranteed a job and a home on completion of the course provided they observed some unbreakable rules - punctuality at all times and no drink or drugs. Frank and 22 others stuck it out.
After two years of sleeping rough, Robert Winter is also adjusting to life in the great indoors - thanks to help from the Sisters of Charity. He's finding it quite a struggle. `My first few nights were spent in an orgy of panicking, convinced that not only were the walls moving in on me but... that once I fell asleep the roof was going to fall on me,' he told The Big Issue. `After sleeping safely cocooned in a sleeping bag for two years, getting used to a bed is harder than you think.'
As well as getting used to the `deafening quiet' and central heating, which seems to have ruined his resistance to colds, the most serious problem is getting used to a drop in his disposable income. He now has to pay his rent, his bills and even taxes out of his benefits. Faced with all this, he says, `Don't forget us or dismiss us when we are out of sight - we still need help, support, patience and, yes, an occasional kick up the bum.'