The Silent Victims of the High Street’s Downfall 

The year of 2019 has seen major closures across both the High Street and the hospitality industry, most recently signified by the wrap up of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant franchise (the workers of which continue their legal battle for unpaid wages, holiday pay, and redundancy). However, the closure of Oliver’s hospitality empire is only a small part of the continuing five-year slump in takings across both the hospitality and retail sectors.

A study conducted by Price Bailey showed 1,442 restaurant insolvencies in 2018, which constitutes an increase in closures by 40% from the previous year, and this is more than double than in 2010, The Week reports. On the high street, the numbers are even more bleak, with 3000 shops shut in the first half of this year according to Guardian reports. The year saw giants such as Toys R Us or Poundworld go bust, whilst others like New Look and Debenhams went through serious restructuring deals and major store closures.

The decline in footfall on high streets across the UK can be attributed to shifting societal trends, such as the increased popularity of online shopping and a smaller appetite for alcohol across the British adult population. Other factors such as austerity politics, rising interest rates, and Brexit uncertainty may have contributed to a dent in customer spending also.

Whilst visiting pubs and shops less frequently may be beneficial to the general British consumer’s wallet, it has an adverse effect on a population of vulnerable people. In the same period that the high street and hospitality sector have experienced a decline in customer visits, the homeless population dependent on the shoppers’ spare change and strangers’ kindness has grown exponentially.

Between 2018-2019, local Scottish authorities received more than 36,000 homeless applications. This number constitutes a 3% rise in applications over the last 12 months and marks the second year of rising homelessness applications. There were 10,989 households living in temporary accommodation as of March 31st this year, and an 8% increase in the number of applicants who experienced sleeping rough at least once in a three-month period since application.

Frankie (an alias) is a homeless man living on the streets of Glasgow. He prefers to stay closer to the city centre, his favourite spot being near a busy spot for bars and restaurants. He reckons he has been going there regularly for about 4 years, and says he likes the culture. “The people around here take care of each other – they are the kind of people I would be hanging out with if I was working.”

A veteran struggling to access social housing, Frankie tells me he lost his house when his landlord decided to sell the property to an unnamed housing association. “It all happened so fast… See because I am dyslexic, I was just signing away, chatting to the [landlord’s] boy, not realising I was signing my deed away.” Since then, Frankie tells me he has moved in and moved out of his girlfriend’s house, and now stays in the street, coming regularly to a spot just outside my work.

“See if somebody stops by, acknowledges I’m here, says hello – that’s good enough for me,” Frankie tells me. That’s nice, I thought, but smiles don’t get you through the night, so I asked Frankie how much he needs to make per night to be able to have a night’s sleep off the street. “Have a couple of cans, get to the hotel, have a shower, and watch telly in bed – that’s a nice night for me. That costs 35 pounds.” And does he usually make that? “Lot more often now I don’t. On Friday and Saturday, I used to make it every weekend. That’s the last couple of Saturdays and Fridays that I haven’t made it. More on Friday I don’t make it. Cause you’ve seen how dead it’s been getting.”

I agree. I have worked in the bar in front of which Frankie hangs out for more than 4 years and have felt the declining numbers of people coming through the doors, too. “There’s been a few times during the week that I’ve just made it, nae mere – not having enough for cans, but I didn’t care about that at that point.” I ask him where he stays if he doesn’t get enough to get to a hostel. “In a close… anywhere out of the wind. I have slept in some crazy places.”

The story that Frankie tells fits perfectly within the larger trends of revenue loss experienced by retailers, bars, and restaurants. And whilst there are no statistics to measure the revenue loss of people dependent on the kindness of strangers walking by, people like Frankie feel the very real impact every night they go without shelter.

[Tanya Gersiova – she/her – @x.pointless]

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