This weekend a man died in the park near my house. He was wearing a hoodie, a t-shirt and jeans and died sheltering from the cold on the park. The police say that the death wasn’t suspicious, but it seems suspicious to me that we are dealing with a massive increase in homelessness. Surely this can’t be an accident? The number of deaths of homeless people has been rapidly increasing, with the average age of death for homeless people estimated as being 43 (meaning that homeless people live not much more than half as long as the average person).
My journeys to and from work now involve walking round endless sleeping bodies hunched in doorways. Inevitably, as with anything that we see every day, I start to tune it out. To walk past people, to ignore their humanity and to view them as obstacles in my path to be avoided. This process worries me, I recognise that every time I walk past a person who is homeless without making eye contact, I’m diminished as a human being and am in the process of subconsciously accepting homelessness and poverty as normal. But, it isn’t normal and we should fight against the idea of becoming acclimatised to poverty.
Homeless grows when poverty grows and when the safety net of public services fails or is actively dismantled. Over the last ten years the relative value of salaries has fallen, pushing people at the bottom toward financial collapse. We’ve also seen cuts to the welfare state meaning that it is more difficult than ever to get access to mental health support, legal aid and other advisory services. Meanwhile the benefit reforms associated with universal credit have been miserly, punitive and bureaucratic. If you add into this the way in which government has turned away from building, maintaining and extending social housing then it is hardly surprising that homelessness has soared. If you want more detailed analysis on why homelessness is increasing see The Homelessness Monitor 2019.
The point is that homelessness is not an accident. It isn’t a natural phenomenon. It is the canary in the coalmine for wider social problems. For every homeless person there are ten people on the brink of homelessness, struggling to keep their home and keep it together. It is also a political choice. Governments can decide to do something about homelessness or they can decide to ignore it. If they decide to address homelessness they will end up enacting policies that will help a much larger group of people e.g. improving the minimum wage, supporting tenants rights, increasing access to mental health services and improving the quality and quantity of social housing.
Homelessness shows how our lives and careers are embedded in social and political structures. When we talk about ‘career development’ we usually talk about supporting people to improve their lives and realise their potential. But, we need to balance this with conversations about how you deal with crisis, failure and periods when things go wrong. When we fall upon hard times, we need some help if we are going to be able to bounce back. Part of this is giving everyone access to career support, but this career support must be embedded in a range of other advisory and support services that help people to deal with their complex lives. If we are able to do this we can help people to deal with knock backs and challenges and give them a chance of rebuilding their lives and careers.
At the moment failure is individualised and the reality of the unequal way in which opportunities are structured is ignored. Encouraging people to be ambitious and resilient is all very well, but it ignores the fact that some people start with a lot more opportunity and others start on the edge of poverty and homelessness. For the wealthy a couple of bad educational or employment choices are unlikely to have life threatening impacts, for the poor, a career misstep might lead you into homelessness and death.
We need to face the crisis that is unfolding in our streets. We need to recognise that homeless people are not unlucky, lazy, lacking in resilience or a different species. Rather they are victims of political and economic system that is stacked against those who are disadvantaged by birth, illness, error or misfortune. We desperately need to try and fix this and to provide the current generation of homeless people with opportunities to climb a ladder out of their current situation. Just as importantly, we need to strengthen the safety net that prevents future generations from ending up poor and homeless.
In one of the richest countries in the world, this should be the issue that we are discussing at the election.