Last week, a homeless man was found dead in his sleeping bag after spending the night in a car park. He was 30. He struggled with substances. He had no fixed address.
According to Shelter, there are now 250,000 homeless people in the UK and, this Christmas, 120,000 children in Britain will be homeless. In the word of the charity’s chief exec, homelessness “is tightening its grip” on the country.
Accept that homeless isn’t unknowable. It doesn’t happen to other people – it happens to all of us
I have seen this tightening grip in my city, London, the place with the highest rate of homelessness in the UK. I see more figures in doorways; I see more faces looking up from the ground at Tubes. I see more people standing in train carriages, asking for money or old food or anything at all. I know the girl outside McDonald's, near my Tube stop. She sits with a few sleeping bags. She’s young. I buy her tea and chips. It’s almost a pathetic act in the face of the scale of the crisis. And that’s what it is: it’s a crisis that, this winter, 250,000 will have no fixed address, live in sleeping bags, sleep in car parks.
I recently saw a picture of a slum in Manchester in the 1960s. Grubby little faces peer into the camera. The paint is peeling off the walls; there is no furniture. They are a literal picture of abject poverty – desperate, desperate poverty.
When I think about those children, they are like characters from a Dickens novel. They are totally removed from me. I have never known anything like that; I have always been warm and fed and had somewhere safe to sleep. But their lives are unknowable, and homelessness or living in a slum is unknowable to me – something awful that happens to someone else.
Accept that homeless isn’t unknowable. It doesn’t happen to other people – it happens to all of us. All of us could be made redundant; all of us could face a rent hike we can’t afford; all of us could fall ill and be unable to work; all of us could fall behind with the mortgage repayments. All of us could get into a position where homelessness isn’t the look of grubby children’s faces from a time gone by – homelessness is here; homelessness is the only option.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the charity, which was originally set up as a direct reaction to Ken Loach’s 1966 Cathy Come Home – a TV drama about a young, homeless woman. Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake was released this year. Half a century later, Loach is still making films that shock us into awareness about the life of the most vulnerable people in the UK. Thank God Loach is still making films, but there’s something unbearably bleak that he still has to.
Women, of course, as ever, face their own specific problems, such as having a period. Earlier this year, we covered a story in which a young woman visited a food bank, claiming she had been using old socks as a tampon.
And this is why we have to do something.
Donate here. This year marks the charity’s 50th anniversary. Donate to support the homeless and to thank the tireless efforts of others.
Wear your slippers – today is Slippers for Shelter.
When you’re in front of the telly tonight, slippers on, heating on and having your Friday-night drink, donate.