Flickr/victoriajohnson.co.uk, CC BY 2.0
As a world community we have agreed that everyone has a right to a home, (article 25 of the UNDHR makes this clear), however, like many such ‘rights’ – food, adequate health care, good education for example – the ‘right’ to a home is dependent upon your ability to pay for that right.
Having spent almost two years sleeping on sofas, sharing beds and moving from one friends’ home to another, on Tuesday November 10th, Vera, an asylum seeker to the UK, and her three teenage children were made street homeless.
After waiting all day in Lambeth Council, South East London – where they were met with cold indifference by an insensitive social worker – at 9pm they were offered a room in a hostel: ‘for one night only’. This tortuous process of uncertainty was repeated for a week, when they were finally offered temporary accommodation, ‘while their circumstances are being assessed’. Temporary accommodation in Vera’s case consists of one room, a communal kitchen and bathroom in a tatty bed and breakfast over an hour away from the children’s school.
This family’s experience is far from uncommon in Britain, 2015; there are 65,000 households (anything between 200,00 and 300,000 people) living under similarly insecure circumstances, which is the highest number since 2008. During the first three months of this year a staggering ‘13,520 households’ [40,000 – 55,000 individuals] were accepted as homeless across England.
In London, where homelessness is most acute, 2,775 people were recorded as sleeping rough Between April - June 2015 ; over three quarters of whom reported one or other ‘support need’ – that’s alcohol/drug use or mental health problems – while over a third had been in prison. Between 2010, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power, and 2014 the number of people sleeping rough increased by 79%.
Astronomical rents, cuts to housing benefit and a grave shortage of council housing are largely blamed for the crisis, particularly in London. And whilst these are indeed key factors driving the current situation, it is, it seems, an inevitable consequence of a socio-economic system that sees everything as a commodity, to be traded and profited from. Within such a paradigm supply and demand rules the day – the greater the demand, the higher the costs.
Exploitative, greedy landlords set rents as high as possible, and councils, whose budgets have been slashed under crippling economic austerity, don’t have funds to build public housing – which is what is desperately needed. In fact far from building, local authority housing stock is being sold to investors, as well as tenants, who all too often sell as soon as they can, in order to make money.
Cash strapped councils, as well as the NHS and the Metropolitan Police, are being actively encouraged to sell off land as well and property – particularly along the Thames – to high-end developers. They are doing this on the promise, The Guardian reports, “that they will build some affordable housing further away”.
London has a population of 8.5 million (13% of the UK total), and at the present rate of growth (1.5%) by 2030 the number of people crowding the capital’s streets could reach 10 million.
Like many major urban centers the city has a severe housing problem; there are not enough properties, it’s impossible to find council accommodation and the market prices, whether buying or renting, are way beyond the means of the majority. The average cost of buying a flat in the capital last year was £463,000 ($695,000); a terraced house (two bedrooms), depending where it is, would set you back around £600,000 ($901,000), and a Georgian family house in the leafy borough of Kensington & Chelsea will demand millions.
Prices in the rental sector are no less shocking and over a third of properties are sub-standard. The average price for a tiny one-bedroom flat is now £1,500 ($2300) per month, if you need two bedrooms you’ll pay up to and beyond £2,000 ($3100) per month. And in order to be granted the privilege of renting a home, you will have to pay six weeks deposit, a month’s rent in advance and show that you earn three times the annual rent. For a flat costing £1,200 pcm, this means a yearly income of £36,000 (the average salary in Britain is £26,500), which is more than a teacher or nurse earns, let alone a cleaner or waiter. Young people cannot afford anything and are forced to either share or, and this is increasingly the norm, stay with their parents.
Local authorities provide housing benefit (HB) to those who cannot afford their rent. But under the government’s welfare ‘reforms’ HB has been capped, and whilst it is clearly crazy to spend £24.6 billion on HB (2013 – 2014 figures), it is wrong to punish tenants who have no control over the extortionate rents being charged. Rents need to be ‘capped’, not HB, long-term protected leases (five years minimum) introduced, with rents tied to inflation. Much of this existed pre-1988, when Margaret Thatcher as PM withdrew tenant’s safeguards, and introduced short – six month – Assured Tenancies. Low and behold, the main reason cited for becoming homeless today is a shorthold tenancy coming to an end.
Homelessness in London is spilling out into the surrounding counties, as London councils, unable to afford the local rents, export homeless people and pay private landlords to house them. Landlords outside London are delighted by the higher rents they can charge, and lap up the cash incentives (between “£1,000 to £6,000 – paid on top of rent and ordinary deposits”, The Guardian states) paid by hard up councils.
Shipping people out of the city does northing to solve the underlying problems: on the contrary, local rents keep increase, and fertile conditions for the problem to repeat itself in the city suburbs and beyond are created. In fact, homeless people are being sent not just to the edge of London, but to towns and cities miles from the capital.
Exclude and criminalize the destitute, the poor and undeserving
The infringement of rights suffered by homeless people has been led by private companies and corporations, who use security guards and ‘defensive architecture’ to deter homeless people, as well as “teenagers, the poor and those who are marginalized or don’t have good social representation”, says Selena Savic, editor of Unpleasant Design.
Anti-homeless spikes and benches are popular weapons of the corporate clan. Seats designed for discomfort, like the small sloping ones now found in bus stops, the wooden benches in parks with armrests at each seat, and the Camden bench (named after the local authority that commissioned it), with its ‘graffiti-resistant’ sloping surface designed to deter both sleeping and skateboarding. Stainless steel and concrete spikes are laid outside supermarkets and apartment buildings, under bridges and on public platforms.
‘Defensive architecture’ is far from passive and protective; it is overtly hostile, declaring that people, particularly those in need of a place to rest, are unwelcome.
The growing corporate ownership and resulting commercialization of public spaces allows for increasing levels of control of communal environments, making it possible for private companies to exclude certain types of people they deem ‘unsuitable’. Usually those who cannot buy their products, invest in their business, eat at their tables, etc.
It is a message that fits snuggly within the neoliberal globalisation project and the homogenisation of our world. The erosion of local culture and diversity, together with the gentrification of large urban areas, is part of this global movement, and is going on apace. Independent businesses, shops, cafes, art galleries and so on are being driven out of central and sought after areas of the capital, to be replaced by national and international corporate brands, creating bland streets that drain every drop of colour, contrast and individuality from an area.
Rents are inflated, those who cannot pay are driven out, and in flow the 4 x 4’s, the dog walkers, nannies and overpriced delis: another ghetto for the rich is created. If this continues in London, the city will mirror Paris, and Labour MP David Lammy warns the capital will have “an outer suburb that is increasingly poor, overcrowded, depressed and an inner London, particularly around the Thames, that becomes a sanctum of the absolute super rich”.
The wrong tone
Concerned with image, tourism and attracting ‘inward investment’ London boroughs are not keen on rough sleepers either; homeless people on the streets set the wrong tone – they sully the reputation of the area and are increasingly unwelcome.
Worryingly, this message has been enshrined in law in the London Borough of Hackney – historically a rough, working class area, where on 13th April, using new powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) was established which made rough sleeping in parts of the borough a criminal offense. The punishment for breaking the ‘Protection Order’ is a fine of up to £1,000 – for someone who has nothing: no home, few possessions, little if any income, and perhaps a fragmented, negative sense of self.
Such a retrograde measure does nothing to stop people sleeping rough; they are simply forced to move somewhere else, in all likelihood somewhere far away from essential support services (food and so on) that they rely on for day-to-day survival. It casts a shadow of guilt over homeless people and further isolates them from society.
Whether someone is destitute because they are an asylum seeker waiting for Home Office support, a divorced man who cannot cover his rent, someone with alcohol or drug concerns, or a young woman out of work without savings, homelessness is not a crime. It is not something to be ashamed of, nor is it ‘anti-social behaviour’: it is the dreadful consequence of life circumstances and a socio-economic system based on money and false values that lacks compassion. For those who find themselves in dire need, what is needed is support, understanding and practical help to find accommodation and begin to re-build their lives.
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