Developers are bolting metal spikes in to the floor of sheltered doorways to stop the homeless sleeping there. They’re thick looking things, an inch in diameter at the bottom and tapering to a blunted point about an inch from the ground. They’re carefully designed, someone has put thought in to them, they are just the right size to make them effective. If they were too big they would be impossible to walk on, maybe even a health hazard. Too small and they would not deter anyone from lying down. They are a calculated abomination.
A couple of years ago I was going to a night club in Vauxhall. It was a good club, perhaps the best I’ve ever been to, and it stays open until around six in the morning. I live in Bristol so when my friends and I would get on the bus at around eight in the evening, walk there at around eleven, party for a few hours and walk back to the bus station exhausted beyond reason at seven. The walk took us over the Thames and past the poorly kept secret headquarters of MI6. As I stepped on to the bridge and looked around the grey wasteland of empty warehouses and office blocks I noticed strange shapes under the decorative arches of a nearby lumpen block of a building. I was slightly drunk already, having necked a fair bit of vodka on the bus with everyone else, and I was excited about getting to the club so I bounded closer in my exuberance to take a closer look.
I stopped dead.
I realised that those strange shapes, around a half a dozen of them, were human beings. My night was just beginning, so the thought that someone else was ending their day had not quite occurred to me and the vision of human misery in front of me was jarring in the extreme. They were sleeping in decorative arches of an empty building. They were next to the mighty Thames, a symbol of enduring wealth, and they were homeless. They were huddled together for warmth on that cold winter night, lying outside in one of the richest cities of the world, while the fortress of the eyes of the state loomed over them.
It struck me that there was so much that could easily be done to help them. The building they were outside was empty, boarded up, they were within a foot of being indoors with no reason for them not to be. They could be taken in, they could sleep in any one of the thousands upon thousands of empty second homes the wealthy hoard for their pleasure. Hotels with empty rooms for the night could open their doors to these poor souls. They were outside, in the cold, in the shadow of the eyes of the state.
None of these things were going to be done and I tried to figure out why. They were just human beings, pushed to the margins, often ill, often addicted. What does it take to get to that state? How do you end up sleeping rough? How hard is it to break out of such abject destitution?
And then I realised I had missed the point. It didn’t matter how they got there, how they ended up in this situation. Homelessness is not a crime, the afflictions which tend to plague them are not symbols of their lack of virtue, trying to deal with the cause of their issues is not something that will help the people dying right now in back alleys in their sleeping bags with their few belongings. Why doesn’t anybody help them? Why do people find them to be such a threat that they ram spikes in to the floor so that they don’t even have to look at them?
They are often frightening. They often have sores, they often smell, they are often coated in filth. They fight more readily than the rest of us because every loss is more acute when you have next to nothing. They have fallen out of normality, fallen out of society, they are a savage reminder of the wafer thin reality of civilisation to the rest of us. They scavenge, they are desperate. The wealthy fear them because they see themselves in their eyes and they feel guilty that they have so much when the homeless have nothing, the comfortable fear them because they are the brutal reality of poverty, the poor fear them because they are so close. We have made them invisible because it suits us not to see them. We talk, half heartedly, about helping them. About opening new shelters and increasing hardship funds. Still in comes the bedroom tax and the bailiffs, still shelter is a commodity and not a basic human right. We don’t want to see them, we don’t want to look at them and we certainly don’t want to talk about them. We treat them like animals to be herded, because we have abandoned them and thrown them out of our clean and sheltered world, because they are invisible and forgotten and it suits the rich that they stay that way.