Exit any tube station in London and you’ll find yourself immersed in the hubbub of activity so common for the thriving and prosperous capital.
Home to nearly nine million people, a central hub for tourism and an ideal work location for many, London is ranked as one of the most pre-eminent cities in the world, particularly from an economic standpoint. If you stopped to ask people on the street, many would say they are proud to be Londoners, the capital instilling us with a certain sense of pride, the ability to say you are present where things happen, develop and grow.
And there is plenty of evidence for our self-regard. The hailed 2012 Olympics which showcased the past, present and future of our great city, the multi-cultural melting pot, where all of those from different walks of life congregate and communicate with one another on a daily basis, and of course the thousand histories the city itself has to tell, where every road, every twist and turn and every building speaks of the millions who have trodden here before us.
But just as you exit that London tube station, you are highly likely to pass a person, or indeed quite a few people, sat on the ground, occasionally laden with some personal possessions, wrapped in blankets with an empty cup of coffee beside them.
These are London’s homeless, the people who the prosperous city silences through a lack of regard, a void of empathy and a forced sense of distance.
Walking along the Strand, a mere stone’s throw away from an international College which draws people from all over the world to study, one cannot help but notice the stark difference London offers. Whilst business men and women suited up, rush past to arrive at their City work locations, students loaded with books and laptops run to their lectures, public transport comes and goes and the City moves at a rapid pace, still the homeless remain. And just as the big City tells a vibrant story, so too do the cardboard cities that are far too frequent on London’s streets, so too do the faces which peer from sleeping bags, so too do the rapidly plummeting temperatures coupled with closed doors and slammed shutters at night.
Reports have recently emerged from Parliament that a homeless man, originally from Portugal, who was a frequent sleeper at the tube entrance to Westminster on Portcullis House, was found dead, a victim of London’s plunging winter temperatures. The news brought about calls for better protection of homeless individuals, with the Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa stating the circumstances under which the unnamed individual died were “inhumane”. The man, who was believed to be in his 40s is the fourth reported homeless person to have passed away in London during the first six weeks of 2018, according to The Guardian. Although figures like these may appear shocking to some, it is evident a wider scale problem lies at the heart of cities across the United Kingdom.
Homeless charity Shelter revealed that 13,000 more people are sleeping on the streets and in temporary housing compared to the same time last year. And the same figures estimate that the number of homeless people across the UK is at an all-time high – 307,000 – exceeding the population of Newcastle.
But in London, rough sleeping is an epidemic, where one in every 59 people are classified as homeless.
They say every cloud has a silver lining, and the images of Euston Station, open for a Christmas for the homeless were a heart-warming show of solidarity, and a quality most of us love about the capital – the ability to rally together to help out when necessary. But the harrowing truth of the matter is one reminiscent of the festive period: There simply is no room at London’s inn. And as London’s homeless flooded back onto the streets, we were, and still are, faced with a question – what next?
A true understanding of the issue of homelessness can be derived from many angles. Of course, politics is easily the arena with the most agency, and this must be moved to the top of the agenda. But then, undoubtedly, the social and economic factors must come into play, and for most, this is where the problem becomes more complex. Homelessness is an issue, we say, but how can anything be done without the political willpower to make change? Indeed, upon a first glance, the matter is insurmountable. But, for the sake of the millions of homeless people who, as the City emits its hundreds of thousands every evening, will once again lie down on the streets of London, in fear for their safety and their lives, something must be done.
In all the heart-breaking sadness of the homelessness crisis, we should not let our empathy sink to levels of pity. Pity is a complex emotion which can often remove the sincerity and humanity of the situation at hand. And, indeed, whilst it is somewhat admirable to report these issues, empathise with them, perhaps even shed a tear, homelessness is something that simply isn’t going away. Often, we are left feeling helpless about the crisis, particularly as this is such a wide-scale problem. But any effort, from acts of random kindness to monetary donation can go a long way in aiding an issue which is otherwise left on the periphery of our societal occupations.
When thinking about homelessness, I am always reminded of the actions of Sarah, a woman I met a few years ago when feeding the homeless at Charing Cross Station, a mere 10 minute walk away from our own King’s front doorstep. In a set of extremely difficult and complicated circumstances, Sarah had fallen upon hard times which had meant she was now living in temporary accommodation, with little money to spare. Whilst finishing the food she had been given, Sarah packed more away into plastic containers, not for herself, but “just for the others I’ll find on my way back who are sleeping in doorways.”
Although I never saw Sarah again, she, and many other homeless people, undoubtedly play on my mind; particularly in times like these, where I can leave snowy London behind, enter my house, lock the door and simply turn on the central heating. The looks on the faces of some of those people who stood patiently in the line that snaked down the Strand is one I will never forget – tiredness was an overwhelming emotion, but mostly a countenance I find difficult to truly incapsulate – hope and happiness at a warm meal and some good company, strongly tempered with a downtrodden expression that speaks of far too many negative experiences on London’s streets. In that one act of random kindness demonstrated by Sarah, I feel as if I have reached the heart of the crisis – albeit from an emotive point of view. Whilst humanitarianism can often be far down the list of many people, if a individual who has nothing themselves can show such simple levels of compassion, then surely, we can continue to think about homelessness, not simply during the cold snap or when we pass the same familiar faces on London’s streets, but actively and consciously.
London is a city which continues to pride itself on acceptance, tolerance and respect, values which may be continuously undermined by these societal issues. A homeless man dying mere minutes away from the highest seat of politics, is tragic, if not entirely ironic. And, whilst we all hail from various backgrounds, privileges and ways of life, in whatever way in which we are able, we cannot care for only the five minutes in which we may pass by a homeless person on the streets, and we mustn’t turn out backs on the people who need support most.