Monday, 4 January 2010

Homelessness: still a very Big Issue

I used to suffer bad depressions and often felt my economic situation to be vulnerable as a result. Whenever I saw someone selling the Big Issue I would think 'there but for the grace of God go I', and reach for my purse. Nowadays, I only buy the magazine on really cold nights; I'm more like Lady Bountiful these days: 'here you go, my good man, and keep the change'.

Tonight was a cold night and I bought a copy. I was struck by some of the true-life stories in a YMCA advert, including this:
Tom's life fell apart when his new step-dad made home unbearable. He sofa-surfed when he could, but his friends' parents would never let him stay for long.

Aged just 18, and with no source of income, he was reduced to sleeping on park benches.
Elsewhere in the magazine there is an article that says 'almost one in four of London's homeless are ex-Forces'.

My own teenaged grandfather left home when his mother got married a second time, to someone horrible. (This was in the mid-1920s, by the way!) The only opening he could see was to join the army so that's what he did. At least he got enough to eat there!

His childhood must have set him up better to cope with life's slings and arrows, because he went on to have a reasonable army career, get married, etc., and was never without work or a roof over his head. But, still, he was bad-tempered sometimes and my mother's memories of him are far from being all good.

So, there, but for the grace of God goes my grandfather as well. He would have bought the Big Issue, I think, had it been published when he was alive. He missed it by a few months.

I can remember when homelessness became a - the - big issue in Britain. It was the late 1980s. A number of factors combined in a disastrous way:

- the Tory government removed entitlement to housing benefit for 16- and 17-year-olds. This meant young people leaving care or running away from home had no means of support, and relatively large numbers of them wound up on the street;

- more availability of hard drugs which hooked more vulnerable people;

- there was a deliberate shake-out and shut-down of old industries, such as mining and steel manufacture, which led to numbers of unemployed young men heading to London seeking work. Again, relatively large numbers of them found themselves on the streets.

I remember, around Christmas time, driving home from socialist meetings in north London to south London, turning onto the Strand and seeing scores of people camped out on the pavements. It was a truly shocking sight.

Things, thankfully, have got better since then, although I'm not sure why. I would guess that the NGOs, support networks, council services, etc, for dealing with street homelessness have got better. I would guess that the economic boom years reduced the numbers of people becoming homeless through joblessness. But with the economic crisis, perhaps those days will come back.

I hope we are not hardened to such sights now and will not tolerate them again. But, then, we already are tolerating too much...

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