For the past five years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, where thousands of destitute people call the streets home on any given day. In part due to spiralling rents, LA has an astounding homelessness problem (recent figures revealed a 16% jump in the city to more than 36,000 out of a population of just under 4 million) in a country where “tent cities” have been normal for some time. Meanwhile, doctors are warning of outbreaks of serious infectious diseases, including typhus, among homeless populations. Attacks on homeless people, including in LA, have been a regular feature of America’s crisis. The National Coalition for the Homeless documented 37 lethal attacks in 2016 – a conservative estimate in the absence of reliable reporting of incidents.
At one time I could have argued that this was a cautionary tale for the UK: the byproduct of a country without a functioning social safety net, where the sight of vast numbers of rough sleepers has been normalised. Not any more. Tory austerity has seen to that. After almost a decade of state-induced harm, Britain has a crisis the likes of which should have been unthinkable. It runs deep, with soaring rental costs, a severe shortage of council homes, and benefit cuts major contributory factors. There are legions of hidden homeless, such as “sofa surfers”, not accounted for by official statistics, while families who qualify for help are being housed in substandard temporary accommodation for extended periods, including shipping containers. To make matters worse, homeless people are increasingly deemed “too poor” for social housing: local authorities and landlords see them as a liability in terms of rent – and therefore a financial risk.
The swelling ranks of people living on the streets are austerity’s public face. Their presence should cause us to ask some pressing questions about what we are willing to tolerate as “normal”.
In the past 10 years, the sight of ever more people sheltering in doorways and tunnels and tents has become ordinary. As the Guardian’s new special report on the issue is highlights, the numbers of homeless people needlessly dying on the streets is shocking. We seem to accept, however, that somehow a surge in the numbers of “rough sleepers” is just how things are.
The statistics are bad. An official estimate reported a 165% jump in rough sleepers in England since 2010 – a total of 4,677 people on a single given night in autumn 2018. But this is only part of the story. Rough sleepers are almost 17 times more likely than others to be victims of violence. According to the charity Crisis, one in three rough sleepers have reported being deliberately kicked, hit or on the receiving end of another kind of violent attack.
Reports of incidents range from relatively low-level episodes to severe physical assaults and even manslaughter or murder. Last week, the parliamentary estate was forced to apologise to a group of people sleeping rough near the palace of Westminster when they woke up to find someone working for a cleaning contractor it employed taking photographs of them without their permission. Earlier this month, the Metropolitan police reopened an investigation into an alleged assault by a security guard at the Savoy hotel in central London on a homeless person reportedly searching for coins in a fountain in the run up to Christmas in 2018. And police in Newport, south Wales, began investigating an incident where homeless people’s tents were set on fire in the city centre (fortunately no one was in them at the time).
Sometimes, the casual abuse of homeless people is caught on camera and finds its way to the national spotlight, as was the case earlier this year when staff at a train station were filmed throwing dirty water over a homeless man as he lay on the ground. Other times, attacks end in tragedy as it did when one homeless man died and another was left fighting for his life after their makeshift camp was set on fire in east London in June. The rocketing numbers of people without a home in Britain and the casual abuse of those living on our streets is nothing short of a national disgrace. We cannot permit this to become the UK’s new normal.
• Mary O’Hara is author of Austerity Bites
LA levels of homelessness were once unthinkable in the UK. Not any more – The Guardian