'Why don't the homeless just go home?' – The Big Issue's first cover story revisited

Nick Hardwick's cover story for the first ever edition of The Big Issue in 1991 asked a provocative question - read it in full here.

The Big Issue's first ever cover.

The Big Issue's first ever cover.

No-one who visits, works or lives in central London can have failed to notice the growing army of homeless people sleeping in shop doorways at night and begging during the day. Why don’t they just go home? The short answer is that most of them don’t have homes to go to. Every homeless person has a different story to tell, a different reason why they became homeless.

There are three main groups of homeless people; “runaways”, “throwaways” and “growaways”. Many people imagine that all the young people on the streets have “runaway” from their parents’ home. That they have had an argument with their parents over some minor matter; that they then headed to London for the bright lights and that their anxious parents are hanging by the phone waiting for them to ring, or are scouring the streets looking for them – ready to welcome their son or daughter back with open arms. If only it really was that simple.

Many young people do run away in these sorts of circumstances but as soon as they start to get cold and hungry they quickly return home. However, if someone runs away and stays away, there’s nearly always something seriously wrong.

Most of the runaways who arrive at Centrepoint have run away from local authority care. Others have fled their parents’ home after years of physical or sexual abuse. To send these young people back home without sorting out the problems that made them run away in the first place would not work. They would simply run away again.

Older people “runaway” too; pressures at work or home get too much and they simply disappear into the anonymity of London’s streets.

However, most of the people on the London streets are not “runaways” at all – they’ve been thrown out of the last place they lived in. They are “throwaways” and have spent much of their lives in some form of institution. Two out of five young people on the streets have spent most of their lives in care. This comes to an end when they are 17 or 18, and most are then left to manage on their own. Usually they’ll be fixed up with a bedsit or flat, but life in care does not equip you to look after yourself.

They can’t manage their money or keep the place clean and they get lonely. If things don’t work out they can’t just go back home to Mum. They end up on the streets.

Others have left prison without any family to return to or without other arrangements having been made. At least they had a bed and regular meals while they were doing time. Out on the streets, they all too often re-offend and end up back inside.

If you talk to older homeless people, you will find that many have spent much of their lives serving their country in the armed services

Nick Hardwick

Over recent years many of the large mental hospitals have closed, only to be replaced with so-called “care in the community”. Too often, the community just hasn’t cared.

People are not simply turfed out of mental hospitals straight onto the streets – they’ll normally be fixed up with a place to stay and get regular support from a social worker. As their mental health improves, that support will be withdrawn. If that support Is withdrawn too quickly, or if they become ill again, they will not be able to survive on their own.

If you talk to older homeless people you will find that many have spent much of their lives serving their country in the armed services. It is easy to lose the habit of making your own decisions, looking after yourself and managing your own time. If the structure that service life provides is suddenly removed, there is a very real risk of ending up on the streets.

But it is not just institutions that throw people out. Young people are much more likely to be thrown out by their parents than they are to run away. It may be when a new step-parent doesn’t want the teenage offspring of a previous relationship around. And older people may lose their home when their marriage or relationship breaks up.

Many of those on the streets originally came to London to look for work. It’s not so long ago that people were being advised to “get on their bikes and look for work”. Many people did just that. With no chance of getting a job in their home area they came to London to look for work. However, many quickly found that without a place to live it’s almost impossible to get a job – but without a job it’s very difficult to get a place to live. The majority of people on the streets of London come from other parts of the country. Whatever the reason that people become homeless, many feel that their best chance of getting a job, finding a home and making a new start is in the capital.

Sleeping on the street is the only choice that many homeless people have

Nick Hardwick

Once someone arrives in London they have two basic problems – finding a place to live and getting money and food. There are a number of options a homeless person might try in their search for a place to stay.

Local authorities won’t house single, healthy people. Despite the fact there are so many empty council properties, local authorities are still putting those to whom they have legal responsibilities, such as families with young children, into bed and breakfast hotels. If you are single and healthy they don’t want to know.

The next choice might be a private rented flat or bedsit. The trouble is, there is a desperate shortage of cheap rented accommodation and so landlords can pick and choose who they have as their tenants. If the choice is between a young professional on a good salary and someone who has recently been homeless and is unemployed there’s no contest.

The homeless person loses out. Even If a homeless person could find a bedsit at a rent they could afford and a landlord who would accept them, their problems don’t end there. Most landlords expect a month’s rent in advance and a deposit. For a £50-a-week bedsit that means a down payment of £400 – a sum out of reach of most homeless people.

The next choice might be a hostel or housing project run by a charity. However, most hostels are full every night and have to turn people away. Many of those that do have spare beds are worse than sleeping on the streets. Anyone can set up a hostel and there is no independent system for monitoring standards. Some hostels are dirty and dangerous with petty rules that make the residents’ lives a misery.

When people first become homeless they’ll probably spend time sleeping on friends’ floors. The trouble is that friends don’t stay friends long If you’re sleeping on their floor. You end up moving from place to place until, eventually, you run out of friends.

Squatting is another option that homeless people try. This does not normally mean a well organised “legal” squat. It means sleeping In a derelict building. To prevent squatting, a lot of councils will board up empty properties, rip out the electrics and smash the toilets. This does not mean that people don’t use the building – it just means that when they do get in there, and you’ve had maybe a dozen people pass through a place where the toilets don’t work, it becomes indescribably squalid.

In addition, if one person can get into a derelict building so can others. Over the past few years, two people that Centrepoint has worked with have been murdered in so-called squats. Another died in a fire started by candles in a squat where the only entrance was through a window which had been boarded up. When the candle was knocked over and the place set on fire he could not get out.

Sleeping on the streets is the only choice that many homeless people have. If they are going to sleep on the streets It’s safer to do so In groups in a reasonably public place rather than up some dark alley alone. Of course, it is difficult to get much sleep if you’re bedding down on the streets. For some it’s easier to wander around at night and try to find somewhere to sleep during the day – such as a library or day centre.

Finding a place to live and getting money are inseparably linked. A surprisingly large number of homeless people have jobs. However, these tend to be temporary for just a couple of days at a time and are very badly paid. Crucially, they don’t provide enough income for somebody to be able to find accommodation. It’s almost impossible for a homeless person to find a permanent Job. Employers will not normally take on a homeless person, but even If one is sympathetic, it’s difficult for someone sleeping on the streets and struggling to keep clean to hold down a nine-to- five job. Nevertheless, experience has shown that once people do find a fairly secure place to stay most will quickly find jobs or training.

Without a job, people need income from the Social Security system. The amount of Income Support that a homeless person can get depends on their age. Most 16 and 17 year olds are not entitled to Income Support at all as they are supposed to be on a Youth Training scheme. It’s as difficult to get a Youth Training place if you’re homeless as it is to get a job. As a result, many of the 16 and 17 year olds on the streets literally have no legal source of income at all.

It is possible, in certain circumstances, for some 16 and 17 year olds to prove that they would face severe hardship unless they get an Income Support payment. In this case they would be paid at the young people’s rate of £31.15 a week. Eighteen-to-24 year olds get this amount too. But £31.15 is simply not enough to live on. If you think of it as an annual salary it would be £1,619.80 a year. The full adult rate paid to over-25 year olds is just over £2,000 a year – barely enough to survive on. And It does not cost a young person who cannot stay at home any less to live than an older person.

Another problem with social security payments is the way it’s paid. Even if you are entitled to Income Support you have to have some form of identification before you can receive any money- a driving licence, a credit card or a birth certificate – not things that a homeless person is likely to have readily to hand. Even if a homeless person -can meet all these requirements, Income Support is paid two weeks in arrears and for the first two weeks of their claim – perhaps the first two weeks in which they are homeless – they will have no income at all.

If a homeless person does find somewhere to live they might be paid Housing Benefit to help them pay their rent. Housing Benefit Is paid by local authorities. Some are hopelessly Inefficient and people have to wait weeks before a payment is made. Landlords won’t wait for their money and often people lose their homes because of delays In Housing Benefit payments.

Those who cannot obtain Income Support have to survive in other ways. A growing number of homeless people beg. Do not believe the vicious stories you read about homeless people earning huge amounts through begging. I spoke to a group of four young people the other day who had spent the day begging and between them had raised between £6 and £1.50 each. Not enough to feed them properly that day. Homeless people do not beg by choice. They beg because they are desperate for money to survive.

Begging is so difficult and humiliating that many homeless people will not do it. For them, their only source of food is the soup runs or scavenging in the food-refuse bins of shops or restaurants. No-one is starving to death in London but there are plenty of people who do not eat every day and whose health suffers because they are malnourished.

Food and shelter are not the only problems that a homeless person has. In recent weeks there has been at least one organised gang terrorising homeless people and “taxing” them. You may not be able to make much money from begging yourself but you can make money by going around demanding money off other people who have begged. We’ve seen people coming to our projects who’ve been cut with a knife or stabbed because they’ve refused to co-operate.

Apart from the risk of being Injured, many homeless people find their health suffers. A common Illness like ‘flu can easily develop into. something much worse If you’re sleeping on the street In the rain. Conditions like diabetes or epilepsy, which could be easily managed by someone who has a stable place to live, can cause real problems for someone sleeping on the streets with a bad diet. The most common illnesses facing homeless people are problems with their chests and their feet. In rainy weather, homeless people never get a chance to change out of damp shoes and some develop “trench-foot” – like soldiers in the trenches – where their feet rot as a result of being wet for days at a time.

The worst thing about being on the streets is the damage it does to your self-respect and self-confidence. You’re likely to spend most of the time cold, hungry and frightened. It’s difficult to keep clean and you rely on hand-outs. It’s not surprising that, in these circumstances, some people find escape from their troubles through drink, or get so used to failure that they stop accepting offers of help.

Yet despite all this, the situation is not hopeless. It is not a problem that cannot be solved.

The most positive aspect of the homelessness crisis is homeless people themselves. Despite everything that’s happened to them most remain optimistic and determined. With a little help, most will help themselves and manage to find accommodation and jobs. When you talk to homeless people you realise what a tremendous loss of human potential homelessness represents.

More help is now available than there has been over the past few years. The Department of Environment has launched a massive programme of providing more accommodation for homeless people in central London. Around £100 million will be spent over three years to

provide emergency hostels and permanent places to move on to, so that the hostels do not simply silt up. In addition, voluntary groups working with the homeless have been given grants to Improve their work.

There is still a long way to go but already over 1,500 people have been housed who otherwise would have been on the streets. The Department of Health has launched a programme of trying to help young homeless people who come to London from other parts of the country to find accommodation in their home areas. The Department of Health has also launched a programme of providing hostels and other forms of help to the homeless and mentally ill. These developments are very welcome but of course they do not go far enough.

The problem will not be solved unless we do more to tackle the causes for homelessness. This means changes to the Social Security systems and better support for people leaving Institutions of one kind or another.

This will cost money. The question we should be asking is not whether we can afford to do It but whether we can afford not to. The cost of keeping people homeless Is far greater than the cost of housing them and providing a chance to make the transition from reliance on benefits and handouts to working and contributing to society.

London is one of the richest cities in the world. Despite all the problems it’s still a great place to live and work In. The fact that there are so many people on our streets should shame us all.

“Homeless is not inevitable – it is the result of Government policies.” Nick Hardwick, who wrote The Big Issue’s first cover story in 1991, revisits his work and considers what has changed in the last three decades in The Big Issue’s 30th Birthday edition. On sale now.

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