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Habitat, the Homeless and the Helpless

I see “them”, the homeless, everywhere, all the time.

As a student of Geography, I am constantly prompted to examine the city as a site of struggle. I learn about theories of exclusion or dispossession. But while I sit in my swirling new Bush House chair, downloading papers and taking notes, there are people sitting on the streets today. The streets are those of Covent Garden, the Strand or Goodge Street, which I walk along every day to get to university, eat lunch or rush to the library. I see “them”, the homeless, everywhere, all the time. But this week I found myself stopping and staring at the absurdity, irony and by far the starkest juxtaposition I had encountered on my walks thus far. Two desperate attempts to find shelter, under the furniture store “habitat.”


It was almost as though this was some sort of wake up call, screaming “Stop, look, do something!” Only hours after that, I found myself staring at another tent.

Statistically, it is no surprise that I keep seeing these tents everywhere. The number of homeless people in London simply is immense. Roughly 7500 people sleep in London’s streets every year.  It is easy to become numb to these numbers – they are an abstraction of individuals, whose stories we do not know.


I am not the only writer at Roar who has addressed the gap between conscience and empathy and numbness and neglect. In 2013, a fellow Roar writer wrote a piece called “Dual diagnosis: the big issue”. Two years later, Olivia Wasson wrote a piece called “Homelessness in London: How Students Can Help to End it”.  This year, Rebekah Evans wrote an article called “The Forgotten Population.”


I am desperately trying to find words to describe our condition. Perhaps the word futility describes our state best. It is not that we don’t care, or that we never look or stop; it is that we are helpless and see our potential actions as unavailing. Essentially, this condition translates into political apathy. The underlying issue is one of collective action however. This is an old issue, which has been addressed by Thomas Hobbess in 1651 or David Hume in 1738 already. Simply stated, the attitude each to their own must be countered by human cooperation.


Part of our numbness can certainly be derived from our belief that we will never end up on the streets. We do not see a connection between “them” and “us.” We might empathise, but we still treat them like the abject of society. We stay distant from their smell. We try to put ourselves in their shoes but they don’t have any, and we don’t give them any. Human cooperation finds its foundation in humans identifying with each other and seeing ourselves and others as members of a greater community. But the fact that we are all inhabitants of the same planet, the same city even, is not enough in our disconnected, class based society. We are too divided to believe in collective action. Exacerbating the problem, is the fact that we live in a world of speed, high output, competition. Charitable endeavours are secondary.


Writing about homelessness really is like opening a can of worms. Academics such as Don Mitchell (The Right to the City) or Mike Davis (City of Quartz) have written comprehensive, eye-opening books however. And I hope that there will be more than a handful of King’s College Alumni doing the same. Already now, efforts to tackle the problem can be seen in the College’s HotChoc society, whose mission it is to “extend a helping hand to the homeless community of Central London.” I think this is a great step towards human cooperation, and just signed up myself. Although I hope that the issue will be tackled structurally by the aspiring policy makers from our Social Science and Public Policy faculty, I would like to promote engagement with the issue through societies such as HotChoc, or the countless others.


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