Homelessness - An Unpleasant Inconvenience or a Human Tragedy
It seems like each week I read an increasing number of articles written about rising house prices, and the fracturing of society between those who own properties, and those who do not. I read a couple of interesting articles last week that I felt raised some interesting points in relation to the extreme end of the spectrum, homelessness, and in particular the way that people treat those who are homeless.
The first article was the open letter written to San Francisco’s mayor expressing the disappointment of a wealthy man at having to encounter homeless people on the city’s streets. The tone of the letter suggests a few things, including a “not in my back yard” desire to move homeless people to somewhere that they wouldn’t bother him and his family. I have visited San Francisco, and there are a high number of rough sleepers, but showing a NIMBY attitude to them is not helpful. It’s at times like this that it’s worth remembering how many people become homeless due to circumstances out of their control, and how much of a human tragedy this is. While this article focusses on San Francisco, it doesn’t require a great leap to see similar attitudes shown in London.
The second article, sat alongside it, was this one, the news of record numbers of tenant evictions in the UK last year. The problems last year reached 170 tenants per day being visited by bailiffs to remove them from their home. As we move increasingly into the world of Universal Credit, I have a lingering feeling that this problem will increase. The early stages have seen a general increase in the number of tenants in rent arrears, although this does include the effect of a delay in payment through the new system. If the arrears level continues, evictions are likely to also rise. At that point the landlords are more likely to match their rent to the current market rate, which is currently increasing. The end result could be further increases in rent adding more pressure to the conflict between a Housing Association’s commercial head and it’s social heart.
If the examples in both articles become more widespread it does leave me concerned about how London will cope with the increasing gap between it’s richest and poorest residents. Will we have a reaction to increasing numbers of people needing to sleep on the street, or will we allow ourselves to grow detached from them, and just ask they are removed from our consciousness? One solution if the gap continues to grow between rich and poor is philanthropy. When Government withdraws itself from supporting the poorest, people will look to those capable of helping, the wealthy. The origins of Housing Associations were found here, in the work of people like George Peabody, Cecil Guinness and Joseph Rowntree. There are already modern examples in London, such as Dolphin Living. Worldwide examples such as the Gates Foundation are well established and might give a blueprint for how to channel wealth back from the richer extremes into mainstream society.
London is currently facing a challenging set of choices. If houses continue to be bought as investments rather than homes, which is a major cause of upward rent pressure, then new solutions will be needed if we want to avoid the societal fractures seen in places like San Francisco, where it seems they just want the problem to go away.
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