Rough sleepers are such a common sight in London, especially certain parts of it, that it is easy for everyone else to stop seeing them. Or if not stop seeing them, to stop feeling for them. Or if not feeling for them, to know what to think or do about them.
Not only are the street homeless a common sight, they have been a feature of London life for a very long time. Growing up far from the capital, Ralph McTell’s sad, famous song The Streets of London, released in 1969, was a component of the “London” I assembled in my head.
I concluded long before becoming a Londoner, that rough sleeping was as much part and parcel of the city – tied in with poverty, begging, destitution and despair – as were the excitement, freedom and opportunity that drew me to it. And sure enough, when I moved here, aged 21, there was plenty of street homelessness to be seen.
Forty years on, I see – we all see – its prevalence increasing. And so, the old questions get louder. What to think? What to do?
I’ve been prompted to write this piece because I have the honour of chairing a London Assembly seminar entitled Lockout Out In Covid-19: Did London Fail Homeless People? At first sight, the question might seem incongruous. After all, during the first national lockdown, a joint effort by national government, the Greater London Authority and the capital’s homelessness charities – the Everyone In scheme – has been widely hailed a success.
However, the special national government funding for this programme is now coming to an end, and yesterday the Mayor activated the capital’s Severe Weather Emergency Protocols, which require London’s local authorities to open emergency accommodation for rough sleepers as temperatures drop below zero. And while Everyone In showed how much can be done if the political will and resources are there, charities have been reporting seeing many hundreds of new rough sleepers on the streets, probably related to the economic ravages of the pandemic.
The London Assembly event will consider what more could have done during the first lockdown and what lessons can be learned from it in terms of future policy. The five panelists – Joe Fox, Bex Pritchard, Balbir Chatrick, Hannah Green and Andrew Boff AM – know far more about the issue than I do. But in my role as chair I can draw on my experience from earlier this year of writing about some of the work being down to help homeless people.
This underlined for me the important truth that the shortage of affordable housing is only part of the rough sleeping story. It showed me that frontline charity workers, whether assisting people on the streets or in hostels, know from ample experience that not every rough sleeper is necessarily a sympathetic character and that well-meaning members of the public can be a hindrance rather than a help as they support people with problems that frequently extend far beyond any immediate need for a pop-up tent.
Another issue, as Westminster Council and the Heathrow authorities will not need to be told, is that London’s magnetic pull for people across the country and the world goes some way to explaining why the vast majority of rough sleeping in the UK is found in our city.
You don’t have to look too deeply to recognise that the distressing recent rise in rough sleeping in London – which predates the pandemic – has a number of causes and manifestations and therefore requires a mixture of effective solutions. Those solutions are needed now more than ever.
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