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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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.