From the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
We still live in a society that if you don’t have the ability to pay you ‘goes’ without.
Paying fuel bills can be hard at the best of times but you are twice as likely to fall into fuel poverty if you’ve recently been treated for cancer, according to new research from Macmillan Cancer Support. Following diagnosis, three-quarters of cancer patients in active treatment need to use their heating more, yet those under 60 do not qualify for any help to pay for it. Fuel poverty – having to spend more than 10 percent of your income on heating – is a relatively new phenomenon that is beginning to grip Britain faster than the spread of swine flu and serves as the cold reminder that we still live in a society that if you don’t have the ability to pay you go without.
The true extent of such hardship and poverty in Britain and its impact is conveniently bypassed and generally ignored by mainstream politicians who have more to peevishly whinge about when it comes to their own expenses. As we come to almost the end of this the first decade of the 21st centaury it’s as if the hands on the clock of time have been turned backwards. If it wasn’t for the constant sight of all manner of technology’s advancement from transport to the smallest iPods, cyberspace and the internet you would not be wrong to conclude that some things change but much, very much just stays the same, as I’m constantly reminded when I visit and spend time with my many friends who live their lives out and on the streets of London, the capital city in this the fifth richest nation in the world.
The people that I speak of are the visible homeless that no one seems to see. Their numbers are hard to place a finger on, they live in hostels, squats and a growing number sleep rough on our streets. Keeping warm in winter is a battle waged every year by the rough sleeper in his or her skip, but truth is every season brings its problems when you’re forced to share the outdoor life with the birds, urban foxes and city rats.
A great many of my friends on the street live and rely solely upon street handouts and day centres for food, laundry and bathing facilities. Many refuse to claim entitled benefits, preferring not to be a part of a welfare system that incessantly strong-arms the unemployed into taking low paid employment with the use of sanctions and penalties. This is in complete contrast to what Richard Bacon, a Tory MP on the committee which acts as a watchdog over public spending, said:
"The Department for Work and Pensions does not know how many people are out of work by choice, rather than by chance. Properly targeted help must be put in place for those who want to work. Only then will the Government be able to flush out the shirkers who are sticking up two fingers at hard-working families and treating the benefit system like a cash machine." (Daily Mail)
How can anyone not be moved by the spectacle and lines of men and women who gather every night in London’s Lincoln Inn Fields for a meal provided by the Hari Khrisnas or a Jamaican Christian Church. On some occasions I’ve counted up to three hundred people who arrive hours in advance with all their worldly pocessions rammed in to rucksacks and carrier bags, sleeping bags and their wind-up radio. This is no easy life. The streets are fraught with danger for many homeless people; over the last few years people living on the streets have become more vulnerable to violence and attack; this threat can be from other street users and from those who are intoxicated through alcohol and/or drugs.
Rough sleepers are 13 times more likely to experience crime and 47 times likely to be the victim of theft. Crime, and the perception of crime, can play a major role in the decisions of rough sleepers in not only where they sleep but also where they take part in daytime activities. Many rough sleepers avoid danger and stay clear of violence by using the London night bus service to get some rest, as one friend told me: “You take the longest route say to Heathrow Airport and back that kills 4 hours and before you know it it’s morning.” Female rough sleepers are particularly vulnerable to physical attack and abuse, and to protect themselves they tend to be amongst the most hidden.
Rough sleepers are met with a mixture of emotions from the general public ranging from pity and support to anger and distrust. But one thing almost goes unasked and that’s why are people, fellow human beings living, existing on our rich streets; streets that are not paved with gold.
London has seen a big increase in the number of migrant workers left homeless and destitute in the city, without access to benefits or housing help. The effects of the economic downturn, as well as a legal block preventing migrants from certain countries claiming benefits, has meant increased numbers of rough sleepers in the city from eastern European countries.
Every year an official head count of rough sleepers within Westminster is carried out and recorded for official purposesî In recent years allegations of tactics designed to reduce the figure have been made. The Simon Community, an organisation that works and lives with the homeless on the streets, undertook its own street head count at the end of October, and found 247 people sleeping rough in the City of Westminster, almost 100 more than official figures now state. The Simon Community along with some rough sleepers have claimed that diversionary tactics were put in place days before the street count took place. A number of known rough sleepers were offered travel warrants by Police and community officers, in an attempt to transfer them out of the area. In a BBC report on the issue of travel warrants being handed out, the Metropolitan Police denied the allegation that they were shifting people out of the area, saying that they regularly issue travel warrants for homeless people, particularly during the winter months. Allegations have also been made that local authorities exerted harsh measures against homeless people, according to the Simon Community. They received information about a group of homeless people being physically moved out of the Victoria Street area by Police. Similarly, there are accusations of doorways used to bed down in were hosed by cleaners to make them unusable.
There are claims that charities were also instructed to make beds available in their hostels ahead of the count, and emergency accommodation was opened up on the week the count took place.
During the summer the BBC screened a very different type of reality television; this involved celebrities who were asked to partake in the programme ‘Famous, Rich & Homeless’. This TV documentary, described as thought-provoking, recruited five famous volunteers who were asked to experience the life of a homeless person on the streets of London for a few days (ten) during the winter of 2008. When I say famous, what I mean by that is household names drawn from the entertainment and media industry. The Marquess of Blandford, the One Show’s Hardeep Singh Kholi, journalist Rosie Boycott, former Coronation Street actor Bruce Jones and tennis commentator Annabel Croft all swapped their lavish privileged lifestyles, their fame and fortune for a time; for a world of soup runs and hostels.
They were helped and manoeuvred throughout by Big Issue founder John A Bird and Craig Last, a former youth worker for the charity Centrepoint. Having watched the show myself; I came away thinking that this type of reality entertainment achieves nothing more than accepting and approving that the daily struggle for life’s existence at the bottom of the pile is a normal part of the structure of society. But the best response to the show came from a homeless person writing in the letters page of Pavement the free monthly magazine produced for London's homeless; they said:
“I found it quite ironic that ‘Famous, Rich and Homeless’ was shown on the BBC. I spent seven months living rough on London's streets, often at All Souls' Church in Portland Place. Having crashed there for several months, rough sleeping with the full knowledge and permission of the church authorities, I was woken one night and "moved on" by a couple of Westminster police officers. When I enquired about the incident at the church reception the following morning, I was informed by a staffer that the alleged complaint had not been lodged by the church authorities but by BBC security staff at Broadcasting House, directly across the road, no doubt because they were irritated by having to constantly step over cardboard boxes whilst filming fearless, hard-hitting documentaries about the plight of London's homeless.”
About the same time as these programmes were broadcast, The Wall Street Journal (15 July) reported; that in the London Borough of Westminster, where Mayfair is located, homes can cost up to £50 million. Yet Westminster is fifth among London's 33 boroughs in the number of unoccupied properties. In 2008, 1,737 homes had been vacant for six months or more, the third highest number among all London boroughs, according to the Empty Homes Agency, a non-profit group that seeks to put empty homes back into use.
Westminster Council have placed according to its website (at the time of writing) 3.000 homeless families into temporary accommodation. Many have been exported to the poorer boroughs of East London because they claim there are not enough temporary in Westminster.
The high concentration of rundown, empty homes is striking for a posh Mayfair, with its ornately gated manses. The hub of aristocratic society before World War II, Mayfair's modern-day image is demonstrated by its prominent place on the British Monopoly board.
Mayfair's homeowners aren't down on their luck, far from it. Rather, there properties serve as investments for owners who pay the bills to keep them empty – something the neighbours and council object to when the homes fall into disrepair. Many owners decline to rent the homes due to local council tax rules, with tax on properties at a lower rate if they are empty and unfurnished, which is a loophole that helps the filthy rich. As the number of homes now priced at more than £1m has fallen by a third during the past two years the problems surrounding the abandonment of posh homes may get worse.
The whole business of empty homes came to light last winter when a group of young squatters occupied two £20 million homes on Park Lane overlooking Hyde Park. Before the squatters settled in, the homes had been empty for seven years. During that time, the Council had tried three times to contact their British Virgin Islands-based property owners: Red Line Ltd. and Perfectil Ltd. Following two years of silence, the property owners surfaced once newspaper reports outed the squatters. The result of such media reports has meant that wealthy homeowners have turned to private security firms to protect their empty London properties from squatters at a cost of up £2,600 a week while according to the Empty Homes Agency there are more than 80,000 empty properties in London (Evening Standard, 11 November). In the recession this is one business that may prove to be very lucrative as a growing number of homes are bought by foreign investors who want a secure asset but continue to live elsewhere.
In our daily press we read much about the housing problem, about lost homes repossessed by the banks and the so-called housing shortage, with thousands stranded and languishing for years on the council housing waiting list or simply held hostage to the private landlord, the cry goes out for more affordable homes or a proposed programme of public works that embraces house building as the desired solution, peddled by those who still offer the dried-out old fig leaf of failed reform. Over a hundred years ago Frederick Engels wrote in the Housing Question: “This shortage is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it.”
And then Engels gave an answer to this age old problem. He said, and I repeat, to end the housing shortage there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.