State of the nation is a year-long creative exploration into the homelessness crisis that grips the UK and launched on 8th April with a two day exhibition at Tate London, which contained art and performance showing what is really happening the length and breadth of Britain. As a team of eighty volunteers, we are very proud of what was achieved over the two days and received some fantastic feedback, but a lot has happened in just three short months since the launch and the news is constant:
Police have been accused of “demonising” homeless people with an anti begging sign outside Waterloo station, a freedom of information request to Glasgow city council has revealed that 39 homeless people have died on the streets of Glasgow in the space of just ten months, a group of homeless people protested at attempts to forcibly remove them from an abandoned cinema in Manchester, councils in south-east England revealed that they are sometimes not informed when London councils rehouse homeless people in their areas, allegations of London councils trying to force homeless families out of capital, a genius idea of serving a food waste feast to the homeless, attempts at giving homeless people an electoral voice, the confirmation of a London location for Massimo Bottura homeless kitchen, a report highlighting the growing problem of lone women parents experiencing hidden homelessness, the real dangers of sleeping on the streets, more on the drug ravaging homeless communities, the dangers of being homeless in Manchester, a homeless man who chased after students to give them back their dropped wallet, a story on homeless teachers, a blog article on the many causes of homelessness, the story of a devoted son who faces being homeless when his mother dies, a high court ruling that governments benefit cap is unlawful and causes “real misery for no good purpose”, a survey of 250 paediatricians revealing a shocking return to old fashioned poverty, the old question of whether or not people should be giving money to homeless people has arisen again, the story of an elderly royal navy veteran who was forced to live in his car for over a year after becoming homeless, the hotel staff at the Hilton who refused entry to a homeless woman after a pair of lads offered her one of their rooms for the night claiming it was against company policy, and according to the latest government figures, homelessness cases have increased by 48% since 2010 and the number of homeless families is up by 61%
Important to note is that official government figures relate only to people accepted by a local authority as homeless and in priority need, thereby ignoring those whose applications that are rejected and those who do not apply for assistance such as the hidden homeless. However, what is indisputable is that we are facing a homelessness crisis and we are struggling to deal with it. There are of course some excellent examples of individuals trying their best to help, such as the man who raised £50,000 for a homeless man that rushed in to help victims of the Manchester attack. While doubtless both he and those who donated meant well, they failed to consider the wishes of the homeless man himself and how the news of donations totalling in excess of £50,000 might affect him, let alone all the media attention the story attracted. Likewise the story of West Ham co-owner David Sullivan promising to give a homeless man six months free rent, after he also rushed in to help victims in Manchester.For me, both stories are testament to the need for a program of education about homelessness, what it means to be homeless, how it effects people in different ways and the many causes of homelessness, which are multiple and complex. It shows the need for understanding among the general public that homelessness is not just about not having a place to call home and that we will not solve the homelessness crisis by simply building more homes. No, this is a crisis that goes much deeper, raising the issue of how we, both individually and collectively treat each other, how we allow those to whom we entrust power and responsibility to treat our fellow human beings. It is a crisis of a lack of compassion and care, where corporations are allowed to put profit ahead of common decency and where some of us are willing to exploit those less fortunate than themselves. A crisis where we allow television and newspapers, pursuing their own agendas to form our beliefs and then some act in the most undignified ways. It is doubtless that the media do some amazing work, yet they have a huge responsibility for that which they publish and it is my assertion that they are not currently being held adequately accountable.
The full facts of what actually happened at Grenfell tower are not yet and many believe may never be known. Allegations are rife, of cost cutting by the local council, inadequate and incomplete fire safety investigations, survivors repeatedly being offered unsuitable housing and three weeks after the fire, a failure to answer simple questions about safety, It is abundantly clear that residents of Grenfell tower have been unhappy for some time and justice secretary David Lidingtons’ public backing of inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick after residents demanded his sacking, will do nothing to enhance public confidence. Likewise, assertions from police that “Grenfell Tower death toll may not be known until end of year”, only to announce less than two weeks later that “Grenfell Tower death toll will remain at about 80”Having received much criticism for their failure to hear and act upon residents concerns, then failing to provide adequate help immediately following the fire, Kensington & Chelsea councillors surpassed themselves by refusing entry to and then cancelling the first meeting of the council executive following the fire at Grenfell Tower it is little wonder that the local people express such a lack of confidence. What is clear is that the risks have been known about for some time and the review of fire regulations promised by former housing minister Gavin Powell in October last year never materialised.
As the first few days immediately following the Grenfell fire disaster showed, when we come and act together, we are capable of amazing achievements and outstanding acts of human kindness, even without the help, co-ordination or assistance of the local “authorities” or government. Then when the local council suggested that not all of the families would be re-housed in Kensington, again the local people set an example and expressed their anger and dismay at the local council offices. Very soon, the money was found to purchase 68 homes in a nearby luxury development. The same community spirit and comradeship was shown following the recent attack on MEN Arena in Manchester. It is during times like these that we show our true human spirit and the very best of who we are. However, I find myself wondering, is it really necessary that these qualities are only shown in the most dire of circumstances? Can it not be that we show such qualities more, if not all of the time?
I believe that homelessness, which is the primary interest of the Museum is a symptom of a much greater problem we all face, unhappiness with self and the society we have created, coupled with the refusal to accept responsibility. It is not politicians pledges to support plans by Crisis to eradicate homelessness, something the charity have been pledging to do for fifty years, or promises of more money from the prime minister that will address the real issues. Homelessness can and will continue, only for as long as we allow it to. When we the people stop pointing the finger of blame at “the government” whom we empower, “the politicians” whom we elect, “the homeless”, “the immigrants”, “the terrorists”, “the refugees”, anyone whom we perceive as different and start working together for the benefit of all, then and only then, will we eradicate homelessness. Then and only then, can we ensure that whatever happened at Grenfell tower, can never happen again.
This article was written by Damien Quigg, Core Group Member, Museum of Homelessness