‘When you step over someone on the way to the pub, opera, shops or your own home, think about this for a while: there but for fate go all of us’. So ends Penny Anderson’s, Guardian article on homelessness. We should all remember, she states, that but for a few changeable circumstances, any one of us could be on the streets.
Even if this were true, and we shall get to that, to believe so would be extremely unhelpful for those that spend their lives on the street. Under this assumption, homelessness is a product of random chance, there would be little that could be done to avoid or prevent losing your home. You could not legislate away fate, so there would be little that one could do to eradicate extreme poverty.
The statistics tell us a very different story, and one vaguely illuminated by Anderson in her article. Short-term tenancies combined with the increasing unaffordability of houses in the UK market contribute to making people more vulnerable. There is little by the way of a safety net for those that find themselves evicted at short notice from a property, particularly those that do not live near family or friends. That being said, it is far from the majority of people who find themselves living in this insecure situation, so perhaps it might not be you sleeping rough one day after all.
The article is typical of the lefty/liberal consensus view that social problems are born of rampant inequality, that rich people do not have cares for those who find themselves in poverty and that factors such as criminal behaviour or substance abuse are secondary rather than primary causes. But in each of those cases their basic assumptions are as unhelpful as they are misguided.
Most often, for both men and women on the streets, it is the breakdown of a relationship that has led to their situation. For women, often this is because of domestic violence. Inequality cannot reasonably be blamed for either of these circumstances, or at least a reasonable amount of contortion of the facts would be needed. Suffering from mental illness is the next most common reason for sleeping rough; far from having an economic solution this could be alleviated by the often spoken of ‘parity of esteem’ for mental health conditions as physical ones. Substance abuse and alcoholism, not mentioned by Anderson, are major factors that not only instigate homelessness but also keeps people there.
To tackle the causes of homelessness, one may start with affordable housing. It seems a reasonable assumption. Government would need to look at reducing the barriers on those companies that wish to build houses so that supply can catch up with demand. There are arguments to be made for more social housing, but alleviating homelessness by creating another form of dependence would surely be detrimental.
Then we can begin to look at the deeper causes of homelessness; ensuring that mental health is treated as seriously as physical conditions we could ensure that people who are most vulnerable receive the care that they need. By doing so, the stigma of mental illness would also be eased, perhaps allowing those that are currently without a safety net to be better able to rely on the kindness and understanding of friends. These same services would be the same that are deployed to aid those with substance and alcohol abuse problems, providing a proper structure for individuals to seek help.
A solution will also need to be found for providing homeless people with the skills that they will need to enter employment. What hope do people have of escaping the devastating spiral that they get stuck in if they cannot find a job? There are many charities that are already fulfilling this role, perhaps all that is needed there is the space and support for those organisations to continue with their excellent work.
Finally, there is the demographic of homeless people that are in employment but are still sleeping rough. This is the clearest demonstration that could possibly be provided that we need to rethink housing benefit, tax credits and the tax system. What we have currently is a situation where the quest for independence does not pay and in fact, can make you more reliant on the state to get by. When both of these fail and it allows people to end up on the streets, there is a serious economic and social failure.
One thing is for sure, that the next time you step over someone on your way to your destination, do not think ‘there but for fate go all of us’. It simply is not true. Do not trouble yourself which such meaningless platitudes and instead consider the very real solutions that could make a difference to people’s lives.
Daniel is a Secondary School teacher in Buckinghamshire and a member of the Wycombe Conservative Association. Follow him on Twitter: @
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty