People without homes, not "homeless people"

There is no such thing as a stereotypical "homeless person", as Jack Watling finds out when he meets some of the people living without a home.

According to Chain (pdf), London's homeless database, 5,678 people slept on London's streets between October 2011 and October 2012 - a 43 per cent increase on the previous year. This only represents a small portion of the homeless community, however. According to GrowTH, a Christian homeless charity operating in London, "We have found that only a small proportion of our homeless guests have actually slept rough on the streets.” Most move between friends' sofas, bed and breakfasts, night buses or makeshift squats and are not recorded in databases like Chain.

The diversity among homeless people is also increasing. Ollie Kendall, who helps to coordinate homeless shelters, explained: “While we do get some street drinkers and drug users, the majority of our guests don't fit the homeless stereotype. Most of our guests are individuals who have, for whatever reason, been without a community to care for them when things went wrong.” In the current economic downturn, many people are losing their homes because they cannot secure enough work. Others are economic migrants, trying to learn skills and find employment.

I first met Aaron on an icy night in early January. He was sitting crossed legged on a foam mattress and was filling out the crossword. As I crouched down beside him he looked up and grinned. “I never finish these,” he said, “but it keeps me thinking.” We entered into conversation. Aaron is 32; he started working in a glass factory at 17 and spent his early twenties qualifying as a joiner. By 25 he was self-employed, “doing some decorating, some carpentry, good quality work. I like my work.”

“Do you have a job at the moment?” I asked

“A day here, a day there. I get a few days, but never enough. Its hard to get a consistent job when you don’t have somewhere to come back to afterwards.” When the economy crashed, Aaron started losing clients. “Very few people were building and the people who were wanted to build it for peanuts. They wanted me to work for £40 a day. £40 for eight or ten hours! I couldn’t do that and pay the bills. I kept going for a while and then stopped renting and went to Europe. There was some work available in Germany so me and a friend packed up and left.

“It was a good move. We found jobs in a factory for a while. One day I was on the train home and fell asleep. It had been a long day. When I woke up my bag was gone along with my portfolio of contracts, my wallet, my phone, everything. I still had my passport and some money in my pocket but I felt completely lost. Without my phone I couldn’t contact anyone and without my certificates I wouldn’t be able to get another job. Our contract at the factory had finished, so I used the money I had to get back to the UK. ”

I asked Aaron if he had any family he could contact.

“There is my mum, but she is looking after my little sister and they barely make enough to put food on the table already. I don’t want to make things even harder. That’s what it means to grow up. You have to look after yourself. I know I’m not in a great place now, but I’ll find my feet.”

“What did you do when you got back to London then?” Aaron looks at me for a moment and then shrugs, turning his palms upwards.

“Kings Cross station, Liverpool Street station, Waterloo. I go to the job centre but they aren’t very sympathetic. They keep demanding why I haven’t filled out their book, why I haven’t got an interview, why I haven’t applied to enough places. They don’t understand how hard it is to apply when you don’t have an address or when you don’t look in good shape. These days I try my best and fill in the rest of the book with names of shops or cafes that I walk past. You just say you are on the ‘waiting list’.”

It is not immediately evident that Aaron has been sleeping rough. His hair is cropped short and there is only a little stubble on his chin. He is wearing a grey and blue scarf around his neck with a grey turtleneck jumper and a pair of blue jeans. The clothes look clean and undamaged.

“That is one of the things you have to decide when you don’t have a house. Do you want to look clean or not. It is very hard to get a job if you look like a mess and smell. Your colleagues start complaining too. I had that happen once, but it is very hard to clean yourself up. I usually find a sink somewhere and do my best. The trouble is that on a really cold night a hot drink can make all of the difference and no one gives you money if you are well-dressed. When you sit down with a cup on the floor and you are not dirty people give you this horrible look like you are a liar or a fraud. People do not understand that. They think that because you are homeless you should smell; you should look a certain way. It is a strange attitude that people have.”

Over the past two weeks I have interviewed over a dozen homeless people. None of them told the same story. None of them had the same background. One used to be a mortgage assessor in the City. Another worked as a professional musician for 25 years. There were both men and women (although predominantly they were men), young and old. The only common thread was that they lacked a community and shared a reserved and wistful smile that held the memory of better days and a distant hope for the future.

Xabier is 26. I sat down at a table across from a tall man in a black raincoat who was bent over a notebook, carefully printing out letters. As I took my seat he looked up and asked “you might help me: what is the difference between the word ‘should’ and the word ‘ought’?"

I blinked a couple of times in surprise before taking up the question. “’Should’ means that it is a good idea to do something. ‘Ought’ means that it is your duty to do something. It partly depends on who says it to you. If your boss tells you that you should do something then it carries an obligation, but I think ‘ought’ carries with it a moral obligation.”

“Thank you, I am trying to learn English and this is very confusing. People use both words and I do not really understand the difference so I do not know which one to use when I speak,” Xabier said slowly and in a deliberate manner, as though he were specifically choosing each word.

It turned out that Xabier is from Nicaragua and that after completing high school he decided to go traveling in Europe. His first destination was Madrid where he got a job as a waiter. Then, like so many young people in Spain, he became the latest victim of the economic turmoil ravaging the continent. “The bar had to be sold. No one had any money so there just wasn’t enough business. I lost my job; just like everyone else. No one could find any work so I spent a month on the street. That was alright, it was summer.”

“How did you end up in the UK?” I asked?

“A group of friends were going to the Pyrenees. They wanted to go to find jobs in France. They persuaded me to travel with them and I had some money that I had saved.” Xabier gave a short laugh before continuing, “you know, go and find work where there is work, but people want to give jobs to their own. That is fair. I did not have the language to work in northern Europe, but English lets you work anywhere so I came to London to learn English.”

“You have clearly learnt it very quickly and very well if you have only been here since the summer.” I said. Although he was hesitant, Xabier almost never used the wrong word and his pronunciation was perfect. “When did you arrive in London?”

“Two months and 10 days ago. I can say the words but I am worried that I am saying the wrong thing. I spend most days in the library now. When I arrived in London I slept a couple of nights in King’s Cross but then I met someone who would let me sleep at their house for only a little money. I stayed there until Christmas, but then I found out that he was taking drugs. Bad drugs. I did not want to stay there. I did not feel safe and so here I am. I need to get on the computer in the library to find some work, but they will not give me a library card without proof of address.”

I suggested that Xabier could get the library to send him a letter using one of the shelters addresses, then he can use their letter as his proof of address. “That might work,” he nods, “thank you, I will try it.”

Without an address, without a home, without a job and without a community Xabier remains hopeful. Aaron remains hopeful. Interviewing these people, I came to appreciate is that there is no homeless stereotype. The people living on the street are more often than not just like you and me. Homelessness does not have a fundamental cause, it comes about when people go through a sudden change which they cannot react to in time, whether that change is the end of a relationship, the loss of a job or a leap into the unknown. If it is going to be solved then we must not look down at someone lying in the tube station and see a "homeless person", we must see a person who does not have a home.

Editor's note: This article was updated on 29 January 2013 to amend the fact that the number of people who slept rough at some point in London during 2011/12 was 5,678 - much higher than the article originally stated.

"If you are not dirty people give you this horrible look like you are a liar or a fraud." Photograph: Getty Images
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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.