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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution