London’s mayor promised in 2009 to end rough sleeping, but the housing crisis is compounding a complex problem
I went to the West End the other night, not to shop but to watch. On one side of a narrow road just north of a glimmering Oxford Street, London drinkers, undeterred by the cold, made merry outside a pub before heading home. On the other side, a much quieter group gathered round the open rear door of a charity’s soup run van. Most of them had no home to go to.
There have been such scenes in the capital for decades, since before Ralph McTell sang about them, since before George Orwell wrote about them 80 years ago. The presence of rough sleepers amid the city’s most conspicuous avenues of wealth is a perennial troubler of the urban conscience, one that for many symbolises a moral failure of big city life itself.
This year’s seasonal expression of outrage that rough sleeping endures has, not for the first time, a political tone. In 2009 London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, declared his aim to eradicate rough sleeping by 2012, yet the numbers counted have been rising sharply – up 43% in 2011-12 compared with the previous year. Critics are blaming a lack of leadership and government cuts, though the story isn’t quite as neat as that.
Johnson’s pledge was always more rhetorical than realistic, but it arose from his response to a challenge posed at a hustings during the 2008 mayoral election campaign – a challenge devised by homelessness charities – that he and his fellow candidates could hardly have turned down. Once in power, in keeping with his London-wide remit, he brought the boroughs and voluntary sector together to devise a joined-up approach. Early success was claimed when a majority of the 205 “most entrenched” rough sleepers were helped with their troubles and found places to live, but the overall headcount has kept rising because of a continuing flow of newcomers to the streets.
A mayor-backed initiative addressing this, the self-explanatory No Second Night Out, seeks to connect people quickly with support services and welfare entitlements, or negotiate their safe return to the area or even the home they might have left. There is a tough love element and the approach is controversial with some in the sector who think it fails to address individuals’ underlying problems and can therefore simply move the problem on. No Second Night Out, contesting this, claims a success rate of 80%. Whatever, the newcomers keep on coming.
Where are they coming from? No Second Night Out says that over half (and rising) are from other countries, primarily though not exclusively central and eastern Europe, some “too embarrassed or just too drunk” to have returned to Lithuania or Latvia. In a sad way their arrival in the capital in the first place speaks not of failure but of its success, its global draw, its promise of opportunities, which many have industriously seized in what may well be the most diverse metropolis on Earth.
Of the rough sleepers found, 8-10% have arrived from elsewhere in the UK, many perhaps once inspired by the same golden pavement dream. But the remainder – a larger proportion than was expected – are from parts of London other than those in which they’re found. Their stories vary greatly and each may comprise many strands, but reason No 1 is a domestic bust-up of some kind: family breakdown, a fallout with friends. Falling out of work is a big factor too, and a descent to the pavement can be swift for those who had been living hand to mouth.
Here’s where the cuts and the economy are surely leaving their mark. The charities operating under the mayoral scheme believe the rough sleeper count is rising in large part because their outreach operation is locating people more efficiently than before. Even so, intelligence from the frontline is that things really are getting worse. Local authority provision, always patchy, hasn’t been improved by the coalition axe taken to borough grants. Recessionary pressures on pay, on employment and on human relationships can and do contribute to the process that ends with someone shivering in a shop doorway under frozen skies.
The bigger context is London’s gargantuan housing crisis, whose symptoms range from unattainable mortgages and bloated rents to the squatting, “sofa-surfing” and surge in households placed in temporary accommodation now so apparent amid a shortage of affordable homes worthy of the name. The types of tatty but welcome options available to me when I arrived jobless and with dung on my boots in 1979 have all but disappeared. Cheap bedsits and “short-life” lets, along with a home ownership ladder whose bottom rungs were reachable on an average sort of wage, have been engulfed by the rising tide of London land values.
No London mayor can correct that calamity alone, but if the current one made half as much noise about it as he does lobbying for tax cuts or new airports it would help – and might improve his record on tackling rough sleeping too.