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par Graham PEEBLES
As a world community we have agreed that everyone has a right to a home, as stated in Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, as with many such rights –food, adequate health care, good education– 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 friend’s home to another, on 10 November 2015, 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 9 pm 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 dilapidated bed and breakfast over an hour away from the children’s school.
This family’s experience is far from uncommon in Britain in 2015. There are 65000 households (that is, anything between 200000 and 300000 people) living under similarly insecure circumstances, which is the highest number since 2008. During the first three months of this year a staggering 13520 households (40000-55000 individuals) were accepted as homeless across England.
In London, where homelessness is most acute, 2775 people were recorded as sleeping rough (2) between April and June 2015. Over three quarters of these had an alcohol, drug or mental health problem, 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 per cent.
Astronomical rents, cuts to housing benefit and a grave shortage of council housing are largely blamed for the crisis, particularly in London. While 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– rents or prices of properties to buy.
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 National Health Service and the Metropolitan Police, are being actively encouraged to sell off land as well and property, particularly along The Thames, to high-end developers, on the promise, the Guardian reports (3), “that they will build some affordable housing further away”.
London has a population of 8.5 million (13 per cent of the UK total), and at the present rate of growth (1.5 per cent) by 2030 the number of people crowding the capital’s streets could reach 10 million.
As with many major urban centres, 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 GBP 463000 (USD 695000) ; a terraced house (two bedrooms), depending on where it is, would set you back around GBP 600000 (USD 901000), and a Georgian family house in the leafy borough of Kensington and 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 GBP 1500 (USD 2300) per month. If you need two bedrooms, you’ll pay up to and beyond GBP 2000 (USD 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 GBP 1200 per month, this means a yearly income of GBP 36000 (the average salary in Britain is GBP 26500), which is more than a teacher or nurse earns, let alone a cleaner or waiter. Young people –under 25 year olds– 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 to those who cannot afford their rent. But under the government’s welfare reforms housing benefit has been capped and, while it is clearly crazy to spend GBP 24.6 billion (USD 38 billion) on housing benefit (4) (2013-2014 figures), it is wrong to punish tenants, who have no control over the extortionate rents being charged. Rents, not housing benefit, need to be capped and long-term protected leases (five years minimum) need to be introduced, with rents tied to inflation. Much of this existed pre-1988, before Margaret Thatcher as prime minister withdraw tenants’ safeguards, and introduced short –six month– assured tenancies. Low and behold, the main reason cited for becoming homeless today (5) 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 “GBP 1000 to 6000 –paid on top of rent and ordinary deposits”, the Guardian reports (6)) paid by hard up councils.
Shipping people out of the city does northing to solve the underlying problems : on the contrary, local rents keep increasing, 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.
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 marginalised or don’t have good social representation”, says Selena Savic (7), the editor of Unpleasant Design.
Anti-homeless spikes and anti-homeless 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, are increasingly common. 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 commercialisation 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 or eat at their tables.
Destitute people with nowhere to go, and no money to spend are duly labelled “undesirable” and told to stay away –“we don’t care where you go, just go away”– is the message, sharp and aggressive.
It is a message that fits snuggly within the neo-liberal 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 4x4s, the dog walkers, nannies and overpriced deli’s : and another ghetto for the rich is created. If this continues in London, the city will become like Paris and, as Labour MP David Lammy warns (8), 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”.
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 13 April, using new powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a Public Spaces Protection Order was established which made rough sleeping in parts of the borough a criminal offence. The punishment for breaking the “Protection Order” is a fine of up to GBP 1000 (USD 1523) –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 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 and without savings, homelessness is not a crime. It is not something to be ashamed of and it is not “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 rebuild their lives.