Outside a shop in Cambridge, entering the station at Paddington, sitting on the corner of a flowerbed on Sauchiehall Street I see harrowing images of war and malnutrition. I see deathly looking young, blistered and pained women, now grown old, with no more life in them than a dying refugee.
But these women are not victims of war, nor refugees fleeing tyrants and armies. They are the drugged, the broken and the ill of Britain’s streets. They are the schoolgirls of but a few years back. Women who’ve been caught by the snare of addiction.
By St Pancras station I see a harried young man pleading with other, young, troubled and destitute people. What is it that they are being asked for? How long can this madness carry on on our streets?
I have spent much of my effort raising the issue of prevention. But we cannot turn our back on those that are stuck in the here and now, those shrivelling before our eyes
This does not feel anything like civilisation. It seems that if we want to talk about civility, civil liberties and human rights abuses, leaving people to die prematurely on our streets is the big one. These people are ill, or the streets make them ill, or iller still. And yet we seem to accommodate street living and begging, almost as a sign that ‘one should have the right to do so’.
The right to die, still standing, before our eyes, so to speak. The right to be An Individual, and put whatever shit you want into your own body.
These are the acts of the mentally ill. Yet we do not extend our health and social services far enough into the hinterland of abuse and addiction to lift up these people, and take them to places of safety.
We know that 32 years ago, Thatcher’s regime, following a USA model, closed down the Victorian mental institutions because of their expense, and because they were no good for the mentally ill. We also know that this poorly working system was replaced by what (laughingly) was called ‘care in the community’. Predictably, the streets filled up and the prisons filled up, becoming places even less suited to handling mental well-being issues.
In those 32 years, we have failed to sort the problem out. We have failed to get to the root causes. And now a new generation joins our street dwellers.
What happened in the intervening years? A huge increase of illegalised drugs, legal uppers, super-strength lagers and an increasingly acceptable culture of overused, recreational stimulants.
Addictive behaviour has now spread to smartphones, social media and gadgets. It will have a huge knock-on effect, if it’s not already, on mental wellbeing. Especially for younger people. Getting people caught is big business. But slipping into an age of mass addictive behaviour is not a future worth contemplating.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
I get asked what would I do about the injured of our streets. The people most of us pass every day. I have spent much of my effort raising the issue of prevention. But we cannot turn our back on those that are stuck in the here and now, those shrivelling before our eyes.
Leaving them on the streets is not the answer. The people I have spoken with or noticed recently know what they want. They want a further high. But that is the worst thing for them. Their decision-making has been robbed from them. Cogent and rational behaviour has been stolen away.
I suggest that we need to be helping people to places of safety for support and cure. It is ridiculous to leave people like this. This is not about individual choice. This is hospital work decanted to the kerb.
I want us to be talking about how we can face this difficult issue, the issue of where we may (supposedly) be taking away one human right – the right to determine what you do with your body – and replace it with another. The right to live, the right to have a full life.
We need a strategy for intervening in our streets now. We need policies that are radical, policies that are real
It might be, to some, the worst kind of nanny statism. But when you’ve got no one batting for you, and no mum, no dad, no brothers, no sisters looking out for you, you might just need a nanny. Someone to help you, as the State stands by and as death haunts the lives of people destroyed by addiction.
Outside the Cambridge shop as the young woman dozed, seemingly in great pain or need, I was reminded of black-and-white films of death camps. Where people emerged having lived through torment and hell, barely able to grasp breath and life.
I advocated the above assertive approach in the time of Blair’s regime. I was told I was too dictatorial. That was 20 years ago, and things are now much worse.
A fifth of young people are now homeless. We just can’t see them. The number of households in temporary accommodation has spiked by 60 per cent. And rough sleeping is all too obviously on the rise.
The palliatives applied don’t seem to be working. But then palliatives, intrinsically, were never intended to work. They were just a stop gap. And leaving people to die on our streets is the worst kind of stop gap.
We need a strategy for intervening in our streets now. We need policies that are radical, policies that are real.
Not simply some sort of enshrined, distorted human right to kill yourself in a public place.