Once upon a time, many years ago, a walk through your City Centre was a marvellous occasion. Nowadays, it just adds to the ever-increasing facets of anxiety plaguing every day life. Not only do we have the very real threat of terrorism to keep at the forefront of our mind during every visit to a busy event or venue, nor the continually rising price tags on literally everything but there is also an enormous influx of beggars in the UK, in every city I visit.
So what’s so unusual about that I hear you cry, every city in the world has a certain amount of homelessness but there is a difference, a huge one. If you don’t often frequent a major city, you could be forgiven for not noticing what for me, is the biggest problem that our government should be solving at this minute, instead they wile away (pun totally intended) time negotiating Brexit.
Walking from one side of Birmingham city centre to the other, from the law courts to New Street station you can be approached and asked for money 15-20 times. At least. Sitting INSIDE a pub in Birmingham I was asked 5 times. Sitting outside a pub at Oxford Circus, I once counted 28 people that came to the table to ask for money. In London when my friend politely replied that he had no cash on him, the guy that was asking pointed to the end of the road and said, “there’s a cash machine right there.” I mean seriously, why target people that are having a £3.90 glass of wine in Weatherspoons. If they really had “spare money” surely they would be sat somewhere much nicer enjoying a meal with a bottle of the finest wine, somewhere that people can’t make them feel guilty for having money. The irony, lets make those with very little money feel even more guilt. Just add that to the guilt they feel about not being able to afford to feed their children the correct diet, friends’ birthday presents, the clothes that they can only dream of to look good for their partner, not being able to pay the rent/the gas bill/the electric/the council tax/the insurance….. the list is endless and now we have what seems like a constant stream of MEN, (and we have to address this fact that 99.9% of the time it is men approaching women asking them for money) walking up to us, asking for money and when denied, getting aggressive.
I have felt the need to explain myself hundreds of times, conscious that this person thinks I have money but refuse to help with as little as a pound. I have explained to these strangers that I am also homeless, couch surfing with friends and families so really there is not much difference between me and them apart from the fact that I still have my relationships intact therefore people are willing to help me. I have told them that a lot of people are struggling right now and they shouldn’t assume that just because someone obviously isn’t “on the streets” that means that they have money, that they do not know where other people are at right now. I have counted the homeless that approached and explained to them that they are number 25 to ask and even if I gave a pound to each, thats £25 gone from my already empty bank account. And each and every time I have tried to explain, the response is met with the same unconcerned apathetic look.
I have been taunted in Shoreditch whilst politely replying when asked for money. This made me want to start being rude and ignoring the requests and the requester completely but that is not who I am. I can not just ignore a human being and I flinch at my own abruptness when someone approaches me, berating myself for not asking what they want first, maybe it was just a light or maybe they needed to phone someone. But no, it’s generally money. I always give to the homeless when I have, usually always in the form of food or drink and I have lost count of the times that the food or drink offered has been rejected. Surely the first rule of begging is to be grateful for what you’re given? I saw a childhood friend of mine begging outside a restaurant that I was invited to, he said that he needed money for a hostel for the night for himself and his girlfriend. I asked him which hostel but with the name that he gave me I couldn’t find any contact details. Not having cash on me, my intention was to pay for the hostel by card for both my old friend and his partner but in the end I asked my companions of the evening and one of them gave me £20 to give him. I know it went on drugs but at least I knew he didn’t have to beg anymore that day.
If I can help, I would always help someone and when I have, I really do not mind giving. I think it’s a safe bet to say that if someone has, and they are that way minded, they would give. I have given to many people on the streets, in Barcelona, Chicago, Vienna yet none of them have vocalised their need for help, they have just shown that they need it. Sitting at the side of the road, a note if need be. That is enough. There is no need to approach people and ask. If anything, even if someone is just banging a stick on an old pan, I would give to them, if I had. Just for trying. I commend them. But this new school of begging and homelessness (if that is truly the case) hitting the streets of the UK is beginning to get too much. It’s intimidating even when the people aren’t actually being intimidating. It sets off a guilt trip in those that care and most of all, when you can’t help, it reminds you of how little you actually have.
On tour with my band (unpaid, we have to pay to be heard), we left Birmingham and made our way to Glasgow to then be asked at least another 8 times, with one man in a wheelchair screaming at us “I’m sure you got a f@*cking pound between three of you’s”. Now correct me if I’m wrong, if he’s in a wheelchair, I’m pretty sure he has a roof over his head, gets disability benefits (albeit facing cuts in this Tory regime), gets free doctors prescriptions, free dental care, all the things that I don’t as a self-employed person, no matter how little I may earn month-to-month. This then begs the question, how many people that beg on our streets are actually homeless? And how many are just after the next fix?
During the 90’s there was a huge surge of heroine addicts. It was an era that enticed people to sell their soul to the devil as it were. For those that couldn’t resist the temptation, their lives were changed for ever. I watched as friends of mine became someone else entirely, stole from those that they were supposed to love and gave all of that love to the brown stuff. But they have been failed by a system that allowed those drugs to circulate. And now they are eternally punished because they need their fix. Above anything else. This is a sad fact but one that we can no longer ignore. This is not going to go away, if anything, it is just going to get worse. From the drugs point of view, the solution is to control feed them with what they need and make sure that they have somewhere to sleep. This is the only way that I can see an end to the never ending stream of new school beggars. Now with that out of the way, lets go back to addressing homelessness. Not all those that are homeless are drug addicts, nor are they sleeping rough. They are the hidden homeless.
The official figures from homeless.org.uk are that in 2010 there were 1,768 people living rough on the streets of the UK and that rose to 3,569 by 2015 and an estimated 4,134 at the end of Autumn 2016. I am pretty certain that has risen again this year. We already know that although that figure is people KNOWN to be living on the streets, it certainly doesn’t cover how many actual homeless people there are in this country. Research from Crisis estimates that 62% of single homeless people, around 3.52 million are unrecorded. People living on sofas, on floors, in cars. The hidden cost of Thatcher’s ownership brainstorm, selling off council housing and encouraging the housing boom. The buy-to-lets paying off mortgage interest rates, those that got on the ladder at the right time, suddenly elevated both financially and status wise along with a surge in homelessness in later years with rents being ridiculously unaffordable.
A decent private rental in Birmingham will cost £550-£600 per calendar month. Add to that council tax £150,Gas £60 electric £40 and water £40, the basics of living in any accommodation and thats an extra £300. So to have a roof over their heads the average person needs to pay around £900 per month just for basic living. Add to that £75 a week of food, £1200 per month. In London, it would be the same amount for just a room. With a minimum wage of £7.50 and the increase of zero hour contracts, it is pretty obvious that most single people are just fighting a losing battle. There is no fairness in this system and it is definitely time for change. There is much for the current UK government to be embarrassed about and this epidemic of homelessness should be at the top of their priorities.
The only solution here is to put a definite cap on private rental property and increase the minimum wage to £10ph along with all wages at the same rate of increase up to £20 an hour or build more AFFORDABLE social housing….. a lot more!