When we hear words like, ‘homelessness’, ‘social needs’, ‘poverty’ we immediately think of Africa, (which effectively represents the ‘bottom billion’ 3rd world countries in the minds of the majority of western civilization) [see http://mvsim.wikispaces.com/Extreme+Poverty?f=print]. However this state of being is not exclusively ‘African’ and can be witnessed in first world countries as we will see with the following example of what occurs in the United Kingdom. Poverty in and of itself is not as relevant in the UK environment as it would be in a third world setting. The reason for this is because the United Kingdom has a benefits system that effectively tops up the income of those who are on low incomes and provides an income for those who do not have regular employment. In a nation that has a robust system of public services that are provided free to those who are otherwise unable to provide for themselves; there are still 60 000 people who are were deemed homeless in England alone by the end of 2009.
Homelessness is said to be the condition and social category of people without a regular house or dwelling because they cannot afford or are otherwise unable to maintain regular, safe, and adequate housing, or lack, "fixed, regular, and adequate housing. [http://portal.hud.gov/portal/page/portal/HUD/topics/homelessness/definition]. Homelessness is a state of social need which is closely linked to poverty. Whilst there is a lot of differing opinion in relation to the definition of poverty, it could be defined as; the state of being poor; lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts; deficiency in amount; scantiness. [http://www.answers.com/topic/poverty].
A homeless caucasian man who lives under the M4 motorway fly over in London, England. His poster read "A vile and brutal country England", which I failed to fully capture because he caught sight of me and began to chase me away into oncoming traffic! But I did escape unscathed.
In London alone, there are a large number of homeless people who live in bed & breakfasts (cheap guest houses) and hostels. In that group is thought that overall, 1 in 10 women, 1 in 6 under age 25 and 1 in 14 over age 60. It is also thought that relation breakdown amounts to 39%; heavy drinking amounts to 21%; losing a job amounts to 18% and having no money amounts to 13% of those who are homeless. [http://www.kalimata.co.uk/true-facts.php]. These statistics are fairly concerning especially in relation to the age group of people under 25 as there are many vulnerable young people represented here that have resorted to living rough or in shelters, often due to a breakdown in the family unit, addiction to drugs or other similar social issues.
Newly recognised homeless households in England alone reached 60,000 in 2009 (excluding the intentionally homeless). Furthermore, there is an important distinction between those with, and those without children in relation to homelessness because many of the latter do not qualify for assistance with government provided (‘council housing’) accommodation (i.e. they are considered 'not to be in priority need'). In Scotland, the total number of households newly recognised as homeless rose substantially rose from 33,000 in 2000/01 to 43,000 in 2003/04. It is interesting to note that the increase broadly coincided with the introduction of the 2001 Housing (Scotland) Act and the 2003 Homelessness etc. (Scotland) Act, which collectively created a framework which is much more generous towards homeless people without dependent children than before, showing that there is a certain element of choice and calculation when it comes to homelessness in the west. [http://www.poverty.org.uk/s81/index.shtml]. In Wales 8,000 households (excluding the intentionally homeless) were officially recognised as newly homeless by their local authorities in 2007. [http://www.poverty.org.uk/i81/index.shtml]. In proportion to the almost 60 million population of the country, these figure can be viewed as a small minority. Although most prevalent in London and the West Midlands, homelessness is to be found throughout the country. In proportion to the almost 60 million population of the country, this figure can be viewed as a small minority [http://www.poverty.org.uk/81/index.shtml].
By far the biggest reason for becoming homeless is loss of accommodation provided by relatives or friends (two-fifths of those deemed 'in priority need'), with a further fifth being due to relationship breakdown. This is a clear issue considering that nearly half of marriages are now ending in divorce, relationship breakdown (particularly where one spouse is the bread winner) can result in serious financial difficulty leading to the repossession of property and eviction. The family unit, a devalued institution is ironically central to the development of this disturbing social need that should not be existent in a western country with a robust social policy and provision for those most economically disadvantaged.
Another key point to note is how the immigration issue is contributing to the homelessness statistics. For example, a quarter of those accepted as homeless and in priority need by English local authorities are from ethnic minorities. This means that ethnic minority households are, overall, around three times as likely to become homeless as the majority white population. This poses a double social need, initially in the case of the homelessness situation and then in the use of public funds to support a group of people that are likely to have a high percentage of foreign nationals (however this point is beyond the scope of this paper). [http://www.poverty.org.uk/81/index.shtml].
I had the opportunity to interview one such homeless immigrant called Peter who is from Trinidad. I met him on the streets of Reading in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2009. What first caught my attention about Peter was his brilliant white beard in contrast to his dark and worn face. His clothes looked old, a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Peter seemed cheerful as he walked along the street humming away. I stopped him and asked him if I could take his picture, a little risky admittedly as he could have been drunk or high on drugs. Fortunately Peter was sober enough to hold a conversation and he agreed. As I took his photograph I asked him questions about how he came to be in Reading. He told of how he had come over in the late 50s as part of a drive by the UK government to fill jobs that had shortages including bus and train drivers. He had settled, married and had children however his marriage broke down and he was estranged from his children. The result of this collapse of his family unit drove Peter to increase his alcohol intake and propelled his drug use. It also resulted in Peter becoming homeless and sleeping rough on park benches and in doorways or in a shelter. He talked of how he wanted to return to his beautiful homeland but with no family there or money for relocation the life he now lives seemed his only option.
My encounters with these two men gave an insight to the reality behind the statistics sighted in the article on homelessness in the UK. Those most at risk being foreigners who came to this country looking for a better life and found that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.
Article first published on Passion in the Moments on 17th May 2010