A few days ago, just after the sun had first begun to warm the rooftops, I saw a large, fat blue worm on a grass verge. It curved six feet long and a couple of feet thick and lay motionless under a sheen of dew. I told myself there was nothing I could do and kept walking.
The image of the person in the sleeping bag, motionless and completely cocooned against the chill, has stayed with me. We’re so used to the comfort of brick walls and glass windows to keep the outside out. What must it be like to not have that? For one’s private world to extend no farther than the damp, fusty inside of a sleeping bag zipped over one’s head. To have no more protection from the world than a thin, nylon shell. Buried alive in a convenient body bag, ready to be cleared away by the council.
Locally, rough sleepers have become a common sight in the past few years. Where once there were one or two, there will now be several apparently homeless people sitting along the main shopping streets. That’s not the most reliable of metrics, since homeless people sensibly congregate in areas with the highest footfall in order to beg for money (and some beggars will not be rough sleepers). But I also see them in less prominent places, where their lack of a roof is indisputable. They’re sleeping under a large pedestrian bridge near the railway station. There’s a man who now resides in the grounds of a nearby retail park with a garden chair to sit in and a shopping trolley to hold his world. There’s someone else camping in a meagre patch of woodland bounding my local Tesco; like the pioneer for a 21st century Hooverville. Whoever this person is, they’re comparatively well provisioned, with a tent and a radio hanging from a tree.
Seeing homeless people on our streets can provoke strong feelings. Compassion, pity, anger, and shame, of course. But there’s worse: embarrassment, irritation, revulsion, hostility and contempt. All of these flicker and spark underneath our more consciously civilised feelings. Beneath them all, I think, is guilt. Guilt for our society, guilt for our own better circumstances, guilt for the fact that we don’t do something or don’t do more. It’s the guilt that drives the hostility. Often unable to reconcile our inaction with our sense of ourselves as a ‘good’ person, we place the fault with them. We blame them for not having a job, as we bustle off to the Amazon Locker after buying a bag of self-scanned groceries. We note superciliously that they’re smoking and drinking, as we look forward to that glass of wine after our tough day. We remind ourselves that society rewards hard work and thrift, as we pore enviously through celebrity magazines and dreamily choose our lottery numbers.
I know — I confess — that I’ve felt at least some of this. I donate to Shelter at least a couple of times a year and I have given money to people in the street, but they’re necessarily the exceptions. If I put only a fiver in every outstretched hand or bowl, I could be down thirty quid a High Street. Most often, I’ve been embarrassed to make eye contact with a rough sleeper sitting on the pavement. Maybe I’ll mumble an apology, pat my pockets feebly or even slow enough to half mouth, ‘sorry I’m not carrying cash’ (which generally is true but makes me feel no less wretched for saying it). And I’ve felt irritation at times: that beggar is there again, at just the spot I need to walk past. Typical. It’s like he’s positioned himself deliberately to shame me: the nerve of the man. How dare he chill my day with his gaunt, grimy presence? He doesn’t even have the decency to look angry or shout abuse at me when I don’t give him anything. Instead he gives me a thin smile and an amicable ‘have a good day, mate.’ Bastard. But then why would he get angry? He must get a dozen hurried, wincing knockbacks every hour; he hasn’t got the spare calories to stew with rejected rage.
As ever, we can add edges to this social problem with a fleet of statistics. Counting the number of rough sleepers isn’t easy but, in England, one assessment is a 169 per cent increase since 2010 to just shy of 5,000 people. This is an official extrapolation of local authority estimates and counts that, while undertaken according to a common methodology, are widely believed to ‘substantially’ understate the scale of the problem. The UK Statistics Authority has expressed serious concerns about them and many local authorities themselves don’t consider them reliable. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether these figures are needlessly bleak or overly rosy: it’s still thousands and thousands of people. The real message is that, as a society, we don’t care enough to obtain a precise accounting.
We can add to the rough sleepers the number of homeless people more generally. ‘The scourge of homelessness extends far beyond our streets. Hidden away in emergency B&Bs, temporary bedsits and on friend’s sofas are hundreds of thousands of other homeless people, including families with children.’ That’s the Chief Executive of Shelter, Polly Neate.
In the first quarter of this year, 79,880 households were in temporary accommodation, up 3 per cent from the same quarter in 2017. Add to this the people who become homeless but are lost to official figures because they find a temporary solution, such as staying with family and friends or squatting. The charity, Crisis, suggests that about 62 per cent of single homeless people may fall into this category. And let’s not forget that more of us who aren’t living in the gutter may be teetering on the kerb. 4.7 million households now rent privately in England, up 74 per cent since 2008 and the English Housing Survey, 2016 – 2017, reports that 9.1 per cent of private renters were in arrears or had been within the previous 12 months.
These numbers suggest the width of suffering but cannot speak to its depth. It’s telling, I think, that we say ‘homeless’ rather than merely ‘houseless.’ We acknowledge, at least with our use of language, the trauma of having nowhere to call one’s own. We understand all that the word ‘home’ holds within it – shelter, escape, warmth, support, peace, solitude, companionship, love. A home is the soil in which we grow; uproot us and we wither. The everyday life of homeless people must be a weary pendulum of survival and boredom. The sheer, dreary timelessness of having nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to see. The strangling frustration and loneliness of watching the legs of the world walk past, day after day; those endless, wasted days. In a society that increasingly communicates from behind walls, where plastic community pours in through a broadband connection, rough sleepers are exiles. With no walls to call their own they are shut out by everyone else’s – the living dead, buried in plain sight.
And we accept this. As an intellectual proposition we know it’s wrong but, as a nation, we don’t feel its wrongness enough to fix it. Instead, we allow government to lie to us that ending rough-sleeping is intractable, a generational task at best. Let’s be clear: homelessness is a twisted snare of societal and personal barbs, including community collapse, debt, relationship breakdown, substance abuse, mental health problems and plain, simple bad life choices. All of that takes time to address and some personal lives can never be ‘fixed’. But rough-sleeping is not a complicated problem. It’s hard and large and heavy, but it’s not complex. It’s people, who don’t want to, having to sleep outside. There is no reason, aside from our own lack of care, that means we cannot end it. What are we as a nation when ‘we need to stop people from having to sleep outside’ is a radical aspiration?
A few years ago, the Cameron Government sought to persuade us that they cared so much about ordinary Libyans that they were willing to mobilise huge military force to bomb their country into a democratic utopia (Remember? Just as we did with Afghanistan and Iraq). A few years later, while Libyans try to escape utopia on anything that floats, we watch them drown while victimising any who somehow manage to crawl ashore at Dover. Yet, we keep lapping up the same ‘Responsibility to Protect’ effluent spewing from politicians’ backsides. Are we guilty of unforgiveable, serial gullibility or is it worse? Do we collude in the lie of government benevolence because it is more convenient than accepting that we are ruled by brigands and all that entails? Perhaps any politician advocating a ‘war of liberation’ should be forced to stand before a parliament of grim, unforgiving homeless people and explain why we can afford the love bombs but can’t care for our economic wounded.
We can fix the problem if we want to. Give every rough-sleeper who wants it somewhere warm and dry. Use empty buildings: more than 11,000 UK homes have been empty for over a decade. Make buildings empty: Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms. Do whatever is needed to quickly make it happen. If it were a personal friend, it would be an emergency and we would never allow them to sleep in a shop doorway so long as we had even a few square feet of floor. As a nation, we need to adopt this view and to remember our compassion. Treat it as a national emergency — because it is.
We have spent decades being told by the most powerful that compassion isn’t practicable, isn’t workable, isn’t ‘grown-up.’ It’s the great shame of so many of us, again, that we find it easier to collude in what we know is a lie. We know what we are seeing is wrong, but we keep walking.
Header image: The New York Hooverville, 1932.
 Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Hal Pawson, Glen Bramley, Steve Wilcox, Beth Watts & Jenny Wood (2018) ‘The homelessness monitor: England 2018,’ Crisis, pp. 48-49, available at https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/238700/homelessness_monitor_england_2018.pdf (accessed 25/10/2018).
 Press release ‘Shelter responds to new government figures on rough sleeping,’ 25th January 2018, available at https://england.shelter.org.uk/media/press_releases/articles/shelter_responds_to_new_government_figures_on_rough_sleeping (accessed 24/10/18).
 ‘Statutory homelessness data, January – March 2018 (Q1)’ Homeless Link 2018, available at https://www.homeless.org.uk/sites/default/files/site-attachments/Statutory%20Homelessness%20Q1%202018%20Analysis.pdf (accessed 25/10/2018).
 Crisis https://www.crisis.org.uk/ending-homelessness/homelessness-knowledge-hub/types-of-homelessness/ (accessed 25/10/2018).
 Shelter ‘Private renters now key to political battleground, Shelter research shows,’ 2nd October 2018, available at http://media.shelter.org.uk/press_releases/articles/private_renters_now_key_to_political_battleground,_shelter_research_shows
 Figure quoted in ‘Behind on the basics. A closer look at households in arrears on their essential bills,’ Step Change (2018 Foundation for Credit Counselling) May 2018, pp. 10-11, available at https://www.stepchange.org/Portals/0/documents/Reports/behind-on-the-basics-may-2018.pdf Note that the equivalent figure for housing association tenants was 25.4% and for local authorities 24.1%.