This week in London a man died outside the Houses of Parliament. Not “a homeless man”. Not “a rough sleeper”. A man. A man who “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.” Predictably, social media soon filled up with outraged posts, and even Jeremy Corbyn tweeted about it.
Why does it take the death of a man outside Parliament for the virtue-signalling Twitterati to suddenly leap into life? Homeless people have been dying every day under this government, in ever-increasing numbers. It matters not where they die. It matters that that they are left to die.
The homelessness epidemic is of course at its most severe in London. This was why we founded The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness in Camden three years ago. Eight thousand people will sleep rough on the streets of London this year. Each one of them is living out a tragedy right in front of our eyes, but don’t let that get in the way of the simplistic symbolism afforded by a death so close to the centre of power.
I’m afraid the way in which this reaction has unfolded reveals something very self-involved about our present political culture. Those of us who have been involved in fighting the homelessness crisis for years have expressed our outrage not in a brief flurry of social media posts over the last few days, but through street activism and the lobbying of those with power over several years.
For many others, however, it seems more virtuous to fire off a carefully-crafted tweet or Facebook post expressing vainglorious outrage than to have a long, hard think about what the solutions might be and to target them at the politicians who might actually be able to change things. But hey, if it releases a few endorphins for our social media warrior class, perhaps this latest death was worth it.
Part of this reaction has been an oft-repeated hope that the death of a man outside Parliament will at last cause politicians to sit up and take note of the homelessness crisis. That would certainly be a silver lining, though not an adequate compensation, for it should not take even a single death on London’s streets for the powerful to realise their responsibilities towards the most vulnerable.
Perhaps a more meaningful and lasting upshot, however, would be for those who spend their lives ranting on Twitter rather than confronting problems in the real world to realise that what people starving and freezing to death on the streets of London need is not 280 characters of mother love and apple pie, but a radical change in government policy.
How many Londoners these days even see London? Perhaps they are too busy staring into the iridescence of their smart phones to see the Dickensian dystopia taking shape around them. A great city that has risen to such heights down the ages is now more divided between rich and poor than ever.
Some of the poor are so destitute they are condemned to die. Forget about your #Twitterstorm solving the homelessness crisis. A far more old-fashioned storm will be on its way if life in this old city is allowed to become any more nasty, brutish and short.