Homelessness is a phenomenon which I’m sure most of us are, sadly, familiar with, but the number of people faced with this hardship in the UK is growing at a truly shocking rate. According to a government study, the number of people sleeping rough rose by 30% between 2015 and 2016. To put this statistic into perspective, this means that on any given night, around 3,569 people in the UK are forced to sleep on the streets.
The homeless charity, Crisis, has called these statistics “shocking” and “scandalous”, and it’s certainly difficult to disagree. Especially worrying is the fact that over half of homeless people in the UK have a mental health problem. As well as having the potential to lead to homelessness in the first place, this could seriously impact a person’s ability to access the support they require- yet another instance of the scant attention given to mental health by UK policy. Another alarming result of this study was the revelation that young people are three times more likely to have experienced homelessness in the last five years than older generations, suggesting a deterioration in quality of life over time.
So what happened? The biggest culprit seems to be austerity. The budget granted to local authorities to fund homelessness prevention services in 2015-16 was barely over half as much as the amount granted in 2001: on average, funding for these services was cut by a shocking 45% in this period. These cuts were coupled with the emergence of a housing crisis, which has seen house prices rise four times faster than average income since 1996, essentially creating a perfect storm in which being left without a home is a reality for more and more people. Fundamentally, though, I think this problem has its roots with the usual culprit of societal ails- unequal distribution of resources. There are currently over 200,000 homes in the UK which have been unoccupied for six months or more, yet we allow thousands of people to sleep without shelter every single night. This was poignantly brought to the public’s attention recently by the anarchist group, Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians, which I should point out often goes by the amusing acronym, ANAL. Last month, members of the group infiltrated the unoccupied £15 million London mansion of Andrey Goncharenko, a (formerly…) obscure Russian oligarch, opening it up as a homeless shelter which housed around twenty-five people. ANAL used the property as a base to feed, clothe, and provide shelter for the homeless, as well as hosting movie nights and talks on homelessness and other social issues. One member, Tom Fox, said “It is criminal that there are so many homeless people and at the same time so many empty buildings. Our occupation is highlighting this injustice.” He has a point – Goncharenko had not once lived in the property since its purchase in 2014. Allowing such a building to sit unused for almost three years seems like a chronic waste in the midst of a housing crisis. Unsurprisingly, ANAL and the people they were sheltering were evicted from the property after only one week, but the media coverage they received brought significant attention to the issue of homelessness.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as sympathetic towards those without homes as ANAL – at one point during their occupation of the London mansion, a group of people threw bricks through the ground floor windows in protest of their actions. The violence with which this occupation was met goes to show just how demonised homeless people can become, which of course exacerbates the problem since such attitudes render the public unlikely to support schemes which offer assistance to them. In one case, this demeaning attitude was manifested in the installation of spikes in a sheltered area in Manchester, in order to deter people from sleeping there. The spikes were installed by the owner of a grade II listed building which faced the area. Depressing as these attitudes are, it is at least comforting that in this instance the City Council condemned the spikes, whilst other local residents brought colourful cushions and pillows to render the surface a little more comfortable in the meantime. Clearly, the problem of rough sleeping and homelessness in the UK is of frightening proportions. That a “developed” country which prides itself on supporting the vulnerable has a homeless population at all is of course alarming, but its dramatic increase seems symptomatic of apathy towards the struggles of the poorest. Perhaps these statistics will be the shock needed for deep and lasting change to be made.