Today, if you walk the streets of the towns and cities of Britain it seems that a permanent feature of city centres are desperate people, young and old, squatting in shop doorways begging for change. A common assumption is that homeless people, many of them young, little more than kids, are begging in order to fuel a drug or alcohol habit. People pass them by, indifferent, never looking at them, not making eye contact, ignoring them. But they are homeless, they are destitute. Just look at what they are lying on: cardboard boxes, which serve as mattresses, covered up and protected from the cold night by layers of duvets and blankets. They are the victims of capitalism, even if they are on drugs or plonked up on cheap alcohol, they are among the most vulnerable in capitalist society. The homeless are prone to mental instability, fundamental illnesses caused by sleeping rough, drug and alcohol addiction. Again and again they are kicked in the teeth, by local authorities denying them accommodation, by being kicked out of the family home, by landlords who want ‘reliable’ tenants. The homeless include people who have been in a variety of institutions, from the armed forces, those who have lost their jobs, or have been refused asylum. Anyone with a precarious existence can become homeless.
The latest figures from homeless charity Shelter number 320,000 homeless in the UK. While only a few thousand are rough sleepers, many are in temporary accommodation, in shelters, hostels, B&Bs, refuges or other social housing. Recorded deaths among rough sleepers and those in temporary accommodation have more than doubled in the five years to 2018. Homeless people die much younger than the general population. Homeless men die on average aged 44, while homeless women die on average aged 42. The charity Crisis attributes rising homelessness to a shortage of social housing, housing benefits not covering private rents, and there not being homeless prevention schemes for people leaving care. There can be no doubt that this explosion in homelessness can only be attributed to the austerity drives which have led to cuts in social services. From 2010 to 2018 there was a relentless drive to cut benefits including housing allowances and this was particularly marked with young people, in the under 23s who were denied housing allowances and access to social housing.
In 2018, the government introduced the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) which was supposed to reduce homelessness. Although 52% of homeless young people who received no help last year should now receive support under the HRA, the homeless charity, Centrepoint, said councils were not properly funded to meet their new responsibilities. Just 13% of young people who presented to councils as homeless were deemed eligible to be housed, while 35% received alternative support, ranging from mediation aimed at moving them back into the family home, to help with a rent deposit etc. Being thrown out of the family home after a row was the biggest cause of youth homelessness (37%), followed by being forced to move out of shared accommodation or a friend’s home (15%), and the ending of a tenancy by a private landlord (12%).
Sajid Javid (the new Chancellor of The Exchequer) introduced a one-year Spending Review which would supposedly alleviate the crisis of social deprivation by providing extra funding to Local Authorities. Besides being widely denounced as a cynical electoral ploy, the Institute for Fiscal Studies decried the levels of funding necessary to ‘reverse’ the massive loss in funding for the local councils. “Day-to-day public service spending was cut by around 9% between 2010−11 and 2018−19, equivalent to roughly £30 billion in today’s prices. An increase in spending in 2019−20, along with today’s announcements, means that in 2020−21 day-to-day spending will be just 3% below its level a decade earlier. Around two-thirds of the real cuts since 2010 will have been reversed, and around one third of the cuts to per-person spending. Much of this increase is driven by additional funding for the NHS, however. Once we strip out the Department of Health and Social Care, spending next year is set to be around 16% below its 2010−11 level. Only around a quarter of the cuts to non-Health areas of spending will have been reversed, and only around 15% of the per capita cuts to those areas.” (IFS August 2019)
This means that the situation of homelessness and rough sleeping will persist, it will not go away, it is a condition of a rotten system. Javid’s Spending Review is part of the preparation for a possible election. There will be no alleviation from the attacks that cause social deprivation. It is the crisis of capitalism that lies at the root of poverty, of squalor, of despair, and the loss of hope. In Engels’ The Housing Question from 1872 he goes to the root of the question “As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it is folly to hope for an isolated solution of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the fate of the workers. The solution lies in the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the appropriation of all the means of life and labour by the working class itself.”