Wealth blinds our rulers to the truth about homelessness

Recently the National Audit Office (NAO) published a study which was of surprise to no-one — notwithstanding the blustering pretend humbug of neoliberals and Tories — showing that welfare cuts cause homelessness to rise.

Not so long ago, this would have been a “well duh” report which would itself have risked being written off as wasteful government spending. But in reporting it for a 2017 audience the BBC duly pottered up to a government spokesperson for “fair comment,” and were told by a presumably straight-faced PR weasel that they are “investing £550 million to address the issue.”

This context-free and highly conditional “we’re bunging money at it” line is, of course, one of the standard slate of PR responses that all governments try whenever the horrible consequences of their inhumanity get an airing on national television. Other tried and tested smokescreens involve telling us they’re “disappointed” in the actions of the people making these reports, as though a naughty schoolchild has been caught writing something disgusting on the class whiteboard. Or talking about some vaguely noble-sounding piece of legislation which actually offers very little positive change — in this case, the “Homelessness Reduction Act,” which nominally requires councils to help all eligible applicants rather than just those with a priority need but of course will be neutered by workarounds as councils have no extra real or ongoing resources to do so.

The numbers aren’t really anything we don’t know already. In seven years there has been a 60% rise in households living in temporary accommodation, including 120,540 children. That number is extraordinarily generous to the government, as it excludes everyone who is staying with family because they have nowhere else to go, have fallen through the cracks of the system, or simply don’t qualify for “emergency” rooms even in extremity.

Around 4,000-4,500 rough sleepers were counted last autumn and noted in the same study — almost certainly a gross underestimate both then and now, given the notorious difficulty of doing comprehensive research on people who are by their very nature living beyond or actively avoiding the easy notice of bored researchers wandering around town centres. Nevertheless, that snapshot represented a 134% increase since 2010.

The homeless are not always found where surveyors walk

The NAO focused primarily on the impacts of cuts to benefits, which is of course a tempting way of finding correlation and causation, though it also said the main issue was the “ending of private sector tenancies,” as rents have spiked upwards in London particularly amid the housing crisis.

Local councils, which have been decanting people out of major city centres for years now, have blamed a lack of support in building affordable homes. Charities concur, and add that benefit cuts exacerbate an already worsening situation.

All true. But all of these lines of attack miss the broad scope of what’s happening in Britain — necessarily so, because the representatives of these great and good Opponents of Tory Austerity are of the same class and means as the people they castigate from their media pundit platforms.

Mixed motivations

When a representative of the Local Government Association responds to a question from a BBC journalist about the policies of a government department overseen by a Tory Minister, there is, most likely, no point at which an agenda isn’t being satisfied for a middle to upper class figure making assumptions about people they don’t understand.

The BBC reporter is looking for a quippy quote. Something snappy, which fits into the mold of the story. Council vs Commons. Charity vs Tory. Nice neat quotes from authoritative figures who know who they are talking to and what the requirements are in the studio. At some point, if we find someone nice and photogenic, we can do a case study about how miserable someone is — though the great unwashed aren’t really suitable for the Daily Politics live, of course.

The LGA chappie meanwhile is pitching for his council chiefs against Westminster. His chatter will be all about the impact of cuts to the council allowance, a lack of power at local level, the impossibility of satisfying both Ministers’ demands and constituents’ needs. He won’t of course, talk about systemic corruption and graft.

He won’t talk about the dodgy development deals being stitched up by councils of all political hues, from Lambeth to Manchester, where luxury housing and gentrification are not so quietly encouraged because they bring in far better rates for the coffers than affordable properties. Or about the measures taken to push rough sleepers out of sight and out of mind, park benches that can’t be slept on, fines for begging, quiet words with the local cop shop to keep the smelly sods up at night. Shunt those homeless out to less powerful regions and we can drive the problem elsewhere, they don’t say (but do).

Ornate iron scrollwork simultaneously gentrifies for the local wealthy and deters homeless sleepers.

The charity … well let us just see where their money comes from. Who it goes to. Follow the green paper road until we see the shine of those clutched pearls in the soft hands of their filthy rich executives. “The government must give more” these scions of wealth cry, as they pick up another bung to deal with the problem at rock-bottom prices in rotten brick hideaways, another contract to deal damage to the poor they “champion” via workfare or migration stitch-ups.

There are none so scathing of the Worthy Institutions as those who have to live with them, none so cynical of their intent than those who work on the shop floors for penny-pinched wages and are told “but this is a charity” when they complain, as though they have no right to live off their work while their chiefs rinse the piggy bank. Sixty percent of donations on admin. Millions sat unspent. But please, “don’t give money to beggars.”

The “solutions” these people peddle are self-serving. They’re patronising and cheap and short on horizons. They stumble around the nests of institutional power, endlessly screaming at each other about the foulness below because they can’t for a moment admit that it’s part and parcel of the edifice they have built.

Homelessness isn’t just a result of poor policy in the management of State and capital, it’s business as usual. Systemic. Late capitalism is homelessness. For there to be a rich there must be a poor. If a very few own the land then everyone else must not. For one to profit another must spend, and thus, eventually, all but a handful are left wanting.

The rights and wrongs

When Westminster complains that it can’t raise cash for housing or more resources for homelessness, it’s half right. The logics of managing capitalism in Britain are limiting. Even a left Labour government can’t solve the basic problem of higher taxation resulting in capital flight, the pressure of globalised production or the problems brought by massive borrowing — eventually it must bow to the needs of “responsible management.”

When local government complains it’s being stymied by Westminster it’s thus also half right — pressure journeys downwards from the peak. But such councils are also expected to “manage responsibly” using their own bespoke taxation and their interests are therefore skewed towards those of the people who they get most of their resources from — businesses, homeowners. Certainly not from the homeless, regarded on the council balance sheet as little more than a drain and a nuisance.

When charities complain … well they always complain. That’s what they’re there for, as long as they don’t question core political and economic societal principles (they’re legally bound not to). It’s certainly not their role however to make themselves redundant, or to pass all the money to the poor. Heaven forfend that such feckless jobless louts be allowed to run their own affairs when trained, clever and stably employed people can do it for them.

An irony is that the Tories have ever said that State handouts reduce people’s self-reliance, but a Rees-Mogg is always there to boast about the British impulse to charity, a form of aid requiring people to publicly define themselves as incapable of self-reliance.

The State-charity network as a whole acts simply as another cycle in the reproduction of capitalism. A 2011 study found that more than 15,000 charity bosses earn over £60,000 a year in this country, and 55 pick up more than £250,000 a year to “direct” the management of people whose lives they couldn’t possibly understand. These are the thoroughly insulated decision-makers and gong-collectors for an 800,000-strong workforce trying to solve the insoluble while their bosses butter up fellow executives at glitzy events, saving the world one canapé at a time.

On collective self-reliance

Meanwhile the homeless themselves try as best they can to find their own solutions. They squat, they apply for limited hostel places or if unsure of Britain’s complex laws and technicalities they sleep outside in tents and bags until the winter rolls around. They band together in little groups of mutual solidarity against the night, and hustle for the chance of a roof and a locked door.

We The People have never “owned” most of the land in this system, and progressively fewer of us own any of it, for it has been seized by those most aggressive hoarders of profit — wealth earned through ownership. And those space parasites leveraging their advantages to make yet more advantages cannot be done away with by capitalism, their greed is protected in its core and heart.

Squatters’ rights activists in 1946

We do collectively have the power to take it back however — those 200,000 homes

that have sat empty for more than six months, the luxury pads held over simply because the wealthy have nothing else to do with their cash than buy another concrete asset, the homes and flats that are gouged monthly for fat rent cheques. We The People have the numbers, the skills, and the productive power to not just tinker around the edges of a fundamentally unfair system but to remake it, throwing off the nets that are cobwebs for the rich and steel chains for the poor.

It has been done before with rent strikes and mass squatting campaigns. It is done today in occupations, eviction resistances and solidarity with the tent sleepers. In fights against the mismanagement of residential blocks and assertions of tenants’ rights to control their own homes.

The war against capitalists’ lust to dominate everything and everywhere cannot be won by letting the rich arbitrate our destiny based on endless studies they’ve commissioned which remind us all about symptoms we already see and refuse point blank to address root causes. It must, and eventually will, come from below — from the people whose lives depend on it and who have always been the true catalysts for lasting change.


Pics: Tim BrockleytHeDiGiTaLdRoPoUt and Laurie Avocado, Flickr CC

This article first appeared in the winter edition of Freedom Journal