Life and Times – being homeless

The scene is the Uplands shopping centre close to where I live and it’s a rainy winter night. I’ve come out to get a few things from one of the supermarkets along the road, the Sainsbury’s Local. Outside there often sits a bedraggled young male asking people for ‘change’. But this time it’s a bit different. It’s a woman sitting there and she’s not looking in the least bedraggled. I give her a pound coin and she thanks me. We get talking. I find out that, until a short time before, she had a rented flat and a steady job in a nearby town. Then it all turned sour. The firm she worked for folded, she couldn’t pay her rent, got evicted and, before she knew it, she was on the streets. That night she was trying to collect enough money to stay in a B&B that gave homeless people rooms for £25 per night. She told me there was another cheaper one but the people there were always either very drugged or potentially dangerous. She was trying her best to be on her own and away from those who were on drink and drugs, so she needed enough money to go to the better place. In all this she (Rhian was her name) made no effort to ask for any more than the single pound coin I’d already given her. She was extremely polite, well spoken and definitely not trying to make you feel sorry for her.

‘It always ends badly’

Maybe I should have given her the £25 she needed. I had enough money in my pocket, but it didn’t really occur to me. Instead, what preoccupied me was that she was sitting there in the bitter cold and wet and needed a decent warm place to go. So I took the plunge and asked her whether I could offer her accommodation for the night adding, that she’d be entirely safe. She thanked me in a clearly sincere fashion but said that, though she didn’t doubt what I was saying, she didn’t know me and so couldn’t accept, the reason being that, when such things had happened in the past, it had always ended badly. I said I fully understood and hoped things turned out all right for her that night. I walked away not really knowing what to think, but later that evening began to bitterly regret not having given her the full room money – especially as I was sure as I could be that it would have been used for that and not for anything else.

That week I went back several times in the evening to see if Rhian was there. But she wasn’t. One of the thoughts that came to me was ‘there but for fortune’, but, as a socialist, other thoughts came too of course – mainly how every country in the world, no matter how ‘rich’, suffers the scourges of poverty and homelessness for at least some (and often many) of its inhabitants. And how fundamental these problems are to the system we all live under – capitalism.


I also thought back to how, when I was a much younger man, the charity Shelter had not long been founded with the promise to get rid of homelessness in Britain within 10 years. That was 1966. Today of course Shelter is still going strong. It is still campaigning, as its website says, for ‘a safe, secure, affordable home for everyone’ and appeals to us with the headline ‘One child waking up homeless is a tragedy, 120,000 is an outrage’. Shelter even now has a weekly lottery – a sure sign that the problem it campaigns about is endemic. In fact, since Shelter was set up, the organisations dedicated to solving homelessness have proliferated. The day after my encounter with Rhian, I bought a Big Issue and found in it an article by Greg Hurst of the Centre for Homeless Impact. The article began: ‘It’s easy to despair. But we must not. We must hold on to the belief that homelessness can be ended and look for evidence of proven or promising approaches that could be tried or tested right now.’ Fine words, and no doubt genuinely meant, but the article ends by fearing that ‘we are condemned to repeat the cycle of ebbs and flows of homelessness’. All this at a time when, according to a recent report, there are 257,331 homes in England classed as ‘long-term empty’, meaning that they have been left vacant for more than six months.

If we look more widely, in December 2022, the government of the ‘richest’ country in the world, the US, published a ‘roadmap’, referred to by social commentator Kenny Stancil as ‘a plan that seeks to eventually eradicate homelessness in the United States, starting with a 25% reduction in the number of people suffering from a lack of reliable access to safe housing over the next two years’. We know from long experience of course that the chances of such a plan succeeding are minimal, especially given that, in the US, at least half a million and, according to some estimates, over a million people are currently suffering homelessness, even though, according to recent research, the country has 16 million vacant homes. More widely, across the globe, according to World Bank figures, more than half a billion people were living in ‘extreme poverty’ in 2022.

Can’t pay can’t have

Why is homelessness and the poverty it bespeaks endemic just about wherever we look? It’s clearly nothing to do with lack of housing, but rather with the fact that people haven’t got the means (ie, the money) to pay for it. In the system of ‘can’t pay, can’t have’ that is capitalism, people can be denied even the most basic necessities. How powerfully does seeing Rhian sitting in the cold and rain outside Sainsbury’s Local bring that home and how much ammunition for change does that give socialists who campaign for a society where nothing is bought and sold, production is for use not profit and there is free access for everyone to all goods and services.


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