A decade and three subsequent general elections have passed since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s ascension to government in 2010. In that time, rough sleeping has more than doubled in the United Kingdom. Government data - which has been faced criticism from homelessness charities for significant underestimation - suggested that while 1768 people faced sleeping on the streets in 2010, 4266 people found themselves in the same position in 2019. According to a BBC investigation involving local councils, the true number of rough sleepers annually is more than 28,000.
The increase in homelessness can be attributed to a variety of interwoven causes. The post-financial crisis austerity measures which the Conservative governments of the decade have embarked on with insatiable energy have depleted the funds of public services related to housing, social security, addiction and mental health, undermining their abilities to tackle this swelling crisis. Meanwhile, rising house prices and rapid gentrification in inner-city areas have left many residents with financial shortfalls, and the depletion of social housing has compromised the state’s ability to respond. In addition, the growth of de-unionised, casualised work conditions and zero-hours contracts have created economic uncertainty in the lives of many individuals who would formerly have been paid a consistent wage. Indeed, the UK is not alone in seeing homelessness rise: France, Germany and many other developed nations have seen analogous increases in rough sleepers.
Given the strength of this trend, and the reelection of the Conservative party with an increased majority in December 2019, few would have predicted 2020 to be the year that rough sleepers were taken in from London’s streets. However, as most of us uneasily settled with staying in our homes for the foreseeable future to slow the spread of COVID-19, an operation was underway to eradicate homelessness. Rough sleepers across London, the UK more broadly, and indeed many other parts of the world, have been given hotel and hostel beds and other temporary accommodations. The reasoning behind this was, of course, to provide a safe space in which homeless people could socially distance, or to self-isolate should they become ill with the novel coronavirus.
In the blink of an eye, an age-old problem which was crescendoing under the weight of neoliberal apathy was alleviated. However, the measures came far too late for far too many, with over 700 homeless people dying on English and Welsh streets in 2018 alone. Moreover, though they will doubtlessly have a significant positive impact on the lives of many homeless people, particularly in this overwhelmingly terrifying time, it is hard to imagine that they were enacted purely in their interests. The homeless population have more likely been swept off of the streets due to the risk they may pose to the rest of the public as potential victims and spreaders of the virus. These measures probably won’t represent serious and permanent action against the perpetual tide of disadvantage our society gaily engenders.
Rationale and longevity aside, however, the important point to take from these measures is the sense of possibility which they foster. Although many on the left of the political spectrum have long argued in favour of measures which may help tackle homelessness of the first degree - including improved social security and employment rights, building social housing and increasing government funding to local councils - our collective political memory cannot recall a time when homelessness didn’t appear as a material inevitability.
Now, in the matter of days, this supposed material inevitability has been decimated. For the first time, the whole population must acknowledge in unison that this grand cultural shortfall was always within our power to overcome. As a result, it should become a normalised assumption in our society that homelessness is a failure of our own, of our governments’, and of our system.
However, we are not living in a normal moment, and these are not normal measures, so now is certainly not the time for complacency from anybody who would like to see homelessness eradicated. It is wholly possible that this temporary alleviation will be followed by a continuation of recent trends after the coronavirus lockdown period is complete. It is, therefore, this sense of possibility which the measures have engendered which must be harnessed, to highlight the injustice of a society with the means to help its most vulnerable, but not the will.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will undoubtedly be reevaluations of the small-government political consensus that has defined our society since the late 1970s. Among these recriminations and reevaluations, it is the job of progressives everywhere to use the sense of possibility instigated by these measures to ensure that governments around the world are held to account for their failings to extend their powers and defend the most vulnerable.
Photo: Tom Parsons//Unsplash