You’ll Never Live Like Common People

I was homeless from 3 January 2009 to 27 April 2010, and I can tell you - poverty is another country. You have either lived there or you have not.

I get extremely annoyed at governments pontificating on how poor people can help themselves. “Tough Love” involves two concepts; moving from a place of understanding and compassion while setting realistic boundaries. It does not come from a cold hard place of judgement and superiority. Politicians appear to get off on “tough”, while ignoring the “love” aspect. Practically every sentence uttered on the subject betrays a total lack of understanding, based as it is on the assumption that all one needs to escape the poverty trap is a get-up-and-go attitude.

Contrast measures such as the 45p top rate of tax with the demise of tax credits, the capping of benefits with the refusal to cap grotesque bonuses, the imposition of a bedroom tax with the refusal to consider a mansion tax, and a pattern of medieval disconnect between the ruling class and the reality of peoples’ lives emerges.

I was homeless from 3 January 2009 to 27 April 2010. Through a combination of circumstances – a landlord not returning a deposit, a spell of illness, a bad break-up, a change of job – I ended up destitute. I couldn’t claim benefits, as I was working. I was turned down for help with housing as I lacked a “sufficient local connection”. I slept in a smelly sleeping bag in a rat-infested cupboard of the office in which I worked.

I had always espoused socialist sensibilities. I had always been sympathetic to those less fortunate than me. But the basic economic concept of Scarcity was academic construct rather than unforgiving reality. The fact is that I had never truly understood poverty until that January day. I thought it was having little in the fridge or raiding the jar for coppers at the end of the month or not being able to afford basic things for your home. Then I experienced having no fridge, no jar, no home, nothing.

The overwhelming shame and self-recrimination that went with my feelings of failure, meant that most of my friends were unaware of my situation. The few to whom I did reveal it, would invite me round to see me, but really to feed me. I would appear at their door without a bottle of wine; their birthday parties with no card. Soon we settled into a silently negotiated truce of avoiding each other.

Being poor is very expensive; it sucks you underwater and holds you there. Working in central London means you have the non-choice of crippling travel costs or overpriced bedsits. Small local shops are more expensive than big drive-to supermarkets. Electricity and gas meters are dearer than direct debits. Payday loans attract interest a hundred times higher than personal bank loans. Six bad pairs of shoes that fall apart after a month cost twice as much as one good pair that will last for years.

During my homelessness, I showered at the public facilities in King’s Cross station at £3.50 (later rising to £5) a pop. I saved 20p coins all week and took my clothes to an expensive launderette on a Sunday. I estimate I spent around £2,000 on such basic hygiene during that time; much more than I needed for a deposit and first month’s rent. But I had no choice. I couldn’t afford for work to catch on. I woke up at six every morning, went out through a side alley, showered, shaved, dressed and came back pretending to “open up” for people waiting outside the building. Dissembling was my full time job; being ashamed my hobby.

I find nothing more disingenuous than rich MPs or celebrities experimenting on television to see whether they can live on a weekly amount of X or Y and conclude “gosh it’s very hard, but doable”. Such meaningless exercises ignore the cumulative effect of poverty; they never start from a position of empty food cupboards, looming debt, threadbare clothes and shoes with holes in them. They ignore the devastating financial effect that a visit to the dentist or a child’s birthday or one late charge can have. They also ignore the fundamental psychological difference of “I know this will be over in a week” as opposed to “this may never end; this may just get worse”.

Whenever the “poshboy” or “cabinet of millionaires” charge is levelled at the government, voices rise in defence; even intelligent voices: this is unfair, it’s class war, ad hominem, their background does not invalidate their views. They miss a fundamental point. An individual view on solutions to any particular problem is not invalidated by the bearer’s background. However, lack of understanding of the problem can render it ill-informed. It is not a war on accountants to say that they are not the best placed group to make medical decisions. If homogeneity of background means that a group collectively lacks experience in a particular matter, then it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it is not the right caucus for solving the problem.

Talking of a difficult period in her life, a friend recently said: “Things wear out and you can’t afford to replace them. You wear out and there is nothing to replace.” Poverty is another country. It exists like an alternate reality in parallel with the rest of society. With time, humility and openness, empathy may develop. But let us not kid ourselves – an MP can visit poor estates from a position of comfortable plenty; all the visits in the world cannot replicate the experience of living in such hopelessness. He is merely a rich tourist on a depressing safari in a queer land.

The poor are no longer content to die romantically of tuberculosis, while the kindly rich visit to offer broth and advice on thrift. Their lives cannot continue to be reduced to Jane Austen novelettes. If the government is serious about solving the problem, they must be listened to and understood.

A still from Pulp's "Common People" video.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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