Out in the cold

Why have a few hundred rough sleepers become the Big Issue?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

‘We can be proud that today, thanks to the vision, dedication and hard work of many people, thousands of former rough sleepers are now rebuilding their lives.’ (1) Thousands? What thousands?

UK prime minister Tony Blair was gushing over the fact that, as reported on 3 December 2001, the number of people sleeping rough in England has fallen by two thirds over the past three years. This was a key target for the New Labour government’s Rough Sleepers’ Unit – a sub-section of the Social Exclusion Unit. But the actual numbers tell a rather less impressive story: ‘It is estimated that 532 people now sleep rough in England compared to 1850 in 1998.’ (2)

Let’s not be mean-spirited: if only hundreds, not thousands, of people can be assumed to be facing a warmer, pleasanter Christmas than they were last year, this is surely no bad thing. What is questionable, however, is why the government has made such a big deal out of tackling homelessness – when the numbers were so small in the first place.

Rough sleeping – or, more accurately, rough sleepers – have been a major concern of the New Labour government since it swept into power in May 1997. It had established the sinisterly named Social Exclusion Unit by the following December, which reported directly to the prime minister, and within two years had published reports on ‘five key areas’: one of which was rough sleeping (3). The Rough Sleeping Report, published in July 1998, wittered on over several pages about ‘joined-up problems’ and ‘joined-up solutions’, all of which was, apparently, a prerequisite to meeting a pretty straightforward ‘overall objective’: ‘by 2002, to reduce the number of people sleeping rough to a third of its current level.’ (4) To achieve this objective, the Rough Sleepers’ Unit was given a budget of £200million between 1999 and 2001 (5).

With all this money and energy, it would surely take an abjectly incompetent government department – or a global depression – to fail to reduce the number of rough sleepers. You could simply divide the cash, and buy each rough sleeper a nice flat. But it would be naive to see the government’s concern about rough sleeping as motivated by the (relatively few) individuals who sleep on England’s streets. The rough sleepers’ strategy may have focused on practical objectives, but its goals were political. And while it talked a great deal about the reality of homelessness, its preoccupation was with homelessness-as-metaphor.

‘The sight of a rough sleeper bedding down for the night in a shop doorway or on a park bench is one of the most potent symbols of social exclusion in Britain today’, preached Tony Blair in his foreword to the Rough Sleeping Report. ‘It is a source of shame for all of us that there are still about 2000 people out on the streets around England every night, and 10,000 sleep rough over the course of a year.’ (6)

In true Blair style, his hyperbole went straight to the heart of what makes people uneasy about rough sleepers. When you leave a shop laden with purchases and trip over a huddle in a sleeping bag, or when you take money from a cash machine desperately trying to ignore the guy sitting under your feet begging for a little change, you tend to feel ashamed. Ashamed of yourself, for not giving them the cash – and then, to stem the guilt, ashamed of a society that calls itself civilised but still has people without a bed to lie in. The homeless are, indeed, a ‘potent symbol’ of the crap side of modern society – partly because they have so little, more because they are so visible. You can pretend all kinds of things don’t exist, but you cannot fail to notice a grimy bundle of humanity shivering on a winter’s pavement.

In setting out to tackle rough sleeping, the New Labour government seemed to be on to a moral winner. Blair was offering the opportunity, not only to do something about a problem that concerns most city-dwellers, but to reduce the symbolic element of this problem, allowing city-dwellers to feel that they live in a nicer world.

The second paragraph of Blair’s foreword pushed these twin promises further. ‘There are good reasons for aiming to end rough sleeping’, he continued. ‘It is bad for those who do it, as they are intensely vulnerable to crime, drugs and alcohol, and at high risk of serious illness, and premature death. And’ – killer point here – ‘rough sleeping is bad for the rest of society. The presence of some rough sleepers on the streets will attract others – often young and vulnerable – to join them. Many people feel intimidated by rough sleepers, beggars and street drinkers, and rough sleeping can blight areas and damage business and tourism.’ (7)

In one neat paragraph, Blair appeals to every concern we might have about rough sleepers. The selfless want the homeless off the streets because they care about them. The family-first brigade want the homeless off the streets so their kids won’t be tempted. The selfish want the homeless out of sight and out of mind, so they can have a pleasant, pressure-free walk through town.

Tackling rough sleeping was about far more than giving relatively few people a relatively more comfortable life. It was about creating the new image of the New Britain that New Labour wanted: a Britain where the sharp edges were softened, in which everybody was somehow ‘included’ and nobody was so visibly out of it, a Britain where people felt better about society, and better about themselves.

The trouble is, it doesn’t work. Even reducing the number of rough sleepers from a small 2000 to a tiny 500 will not clear the streets – because, as Tony Blair concedes, this figure represents the number of people sleeping rough at any one time. Many more people (he cites a figure of 10,000 – who really knows?), who generally have a bed to go to, will sleep rough on occasion throughout a year. The difficulty of coming up with hard statistics on homelessness gives the figures a pulled-out-of-the-hat quality, where the problem can just as easily be seen to be getting worse as getting better. And in a society prone to over-exaggeration of any problem, the downbeat view is likely to win out.

If the government has an interest in claiming that rough sleeping numbers are falling, there are many others with a clear interest in claiming that, on the contrary, the numbers are rising. No sooner had the Rough Sleepers’ Unit released its figures on Monday than a rather undignified row broke out within the homelessness community about the ‘true scale’ of rough sleeping. The campaign group Crisis leapt in to warn that the 532 figure was only the tip of the iceberg of true homelessness figures. The Simon Community called for an inquiry into the validity of official figures. As allegations abounded that the Rough Sleepers’ Unit had fiddled the figures, the Conservative Party accused New Labour of trying to ‘bury the bad news that homelessness has soared by 12,000 since they came to power’, while news reports floated an estimate of 400,000 single people homeless in the UK (8). Any raise on 400,000?

Yet beyond the numbers game, the government faces a deeper problem in its crusade against homelessness. It assumes that people sympathise with rough sleepers – what it misses is the extent to which many empathise with them. Blair sees rough sleeping as a ‘potent symbol’ of a society that has frozen people out. Increasingly, however, rough sleepers themselves are seen to symbolise, not those who cannot be a part of society, but those who do not want to be.

‘Our next step’, said Louise Casey, head of the Rough Sleepers’ Unit, ‘must be…to understand why some people are still sleeping rough’ (9). It is now accepted that homelessness cannot be eradicated through straightforward solutions like hostels and jobs – because some people prefer begging on the street to hostels and jobs. The government cannot understand this, and it poses a big problem for the Caseys of this world. If society opens its arms to include the homeless, and the homeless respond by telling society to go screw itself, it raises some awkward questions about the kind of society people are being included into. And it’s not only the few diehard rough sleepers asking these questions.

Why, for example, is it that homelessness is such a popular cause with the young? The very section of society least likely to have some fond attachment to home, to mortgages and fitted carpets and jobs and decent food, is not concerned about homelessness because it thinks everybody should have the chance of a life like their parents’. If anything, the younger generation’s attachment to homelessness lies in the romantic charm that they see in it – not in the reality of sleeping on a park bench, but in the rejection of mainstream society that the homeless seem to embody.

Rough sleeping comes to symbolise a colder, dirtier, starker expression of the alienation that many more people feel – whether they have a bed at night or not. In putting the spotlight on homelessness, the government has inadvertently opened itself up to the more uncomfortable realisation – that even those who are already ‘socially included’ see themselves as somehow being out in the cold.

Louise Casey, and her friends at Number 10, cannot understand why any rough sleeper in his right mind would reject the Rough Sleepers’ Unit’s offers of hostel beds, woodwork classes, drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation and life-skills counselling in favour of life on the street. But many other people can. While most of us live in the real world of jobs, houses and money, we are not emotionally all that attached to it, often experiencing life on the inside as pretty atomised and banal. This is not a problem that can be solved by policy initiatives, by target-setting or good-news press releases. It can only be addressed through the kind of discussion we in the UK are often unwilling to have: which is not about the homeless few, but about the already-included majority.

In attempting to rid the streets of the homeless, the government wants to rid mainstream society of role-models through which it can express its disaffection. A more likely outcome, however, is that the spotlight on homelessness will only provide a clearer, and more degraded, focus for this disaffection. It’s about time we stopped romanticising rough sleeping – and started putting our own house in order.

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Topics Politics


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