Back in 1991, Luke Morley wrote a song called Low Life In High Places
which he explained was about seeing people living rough on the streets of New York and Catford in South London. This latter was a relatively new development which saw a surprising, some would say disgusting, number of young people, including girls, living on and begging on the street.
This came about thanks to the so-called reforms of the Thatcher Government. Some of these reforms were both necessary and painful, but as usual they were the most painful for the people at the bottom.
In May 1997, the Blair Government - so-called New Labour - promised to end this sort of obscenity, and indeed it made great strides towards doing so. The new slogan was a hand up, not a hand out. It created the Rough Sleepers Initiative to drastically reduce the numbers of homeless sleeping on our streets, something that was extremely successful. Among its other achievements, it took great strides towards getting the entire country on-line, both government/local government services and ordinary people. Then, after September 11, 2001, the Government lost its way.
Although every homeless person has a unique story to tell, there are broadly speaking two types of homeless. There are the chronic homeless, people who have all manner of problems from drink and drug to mental health issues. Many of these people prefer to sleep and exist on the streets rather than dwell in hostels alongside other people who have similar or worse problems than their own.
Then there are people who become homeless for more avoidable reasons. These numbers include people who have been discharged from prison having lost their homes; kids who have grown up in care who once they reach adulthood are in effect on their own; people who have been in abusive relationships - men as well as women; people who have lost their jobs and then their homes for any number of reasons. All these people are or should be temporarily homeless, but the longer they stay on the street or in emergency, usually hostel accommodation, the greater is the chance that they will fall into that other group, for whom there is more often than not no way back.
Homelessness is not confined to big cities; in Totnes, Devon earlier this month, the death of a homeless man
aged only 42 raised public awareness of this. Dying young is one of the perennial problems of homelessness.
There are a number of organisations working both to relieve homelessness and to raise awareness of the myriad problems the homeless face. The charity Crisis
is in the forefront of this work, and is dedicated to helping the single homeless. Unlike some so-called charities, it does not pay its top people telephone number salaries, and is heavily dependent on volunteers, especially for its Christmas shelter.
The scale of the problem of homelessness is not one that can be tackled solely by charities though, what is needed is a roots and branch reform of both the benefits system and social housing, among others. The average rent in London is too silly to contemplate for those in anything but middle income jobs, and holding down a job even while living in a hostel is all but impossible.
On a more practical note, Crisis is now looking for volunteers for its Open Christmas
. And for work all year round.