The body of a homeless man, forty eight year old Ranjit Singh, has been discovered by sanitation workers having been crushed to death by a refuse collection vehicle. What makes this story worse is that it is not a one off . As austerity policies simultaneously force more people into homelessness, while withdrawing support for the homeless, this is one sorry episode in an unfolding disaster.
It’s Not Just Ranjit
Detective Constable Aki Heer, reading a statement on the death of Ranjit Singh stated the following:
“A post mortem found he had sustained catastrophic crushing injuries including a broken spine and shattered pelvis and that the injuries were consistent with the large claw machinery found at recycling sites.”
In researching this piece, I was stunned to find a string of such stories in recent years. In 2012, the Independent reported the body of a 50 year old homeless man (unnamed) found by another waste company in the Wirral having suffered the same fate. The same happened to a 30 year old man in November 2009. There are many other examples.
This is a pretty damning verdict on a society which abandons its most vulnerable members to seek shelter amongst the festering waste, in the back alleys, out of view. With homelessness on the rise, how many more of these stories do we need to hear before we act?
Homelessness on the Rise
The end game for those who cannot find work, and cannot find shelter, is that they join the ranks of the homeless. There are two types of recognised homelessness in the UK:
Statutory Homelessness: These are people deemed eligible for support in finding temporary accommodation funded by their local authority if they find themselves unable to keep a roof over their head. A person needs to be eligible for public funds, have a local connection, prove they are unintentionally homeless and demonstrate they are a ‘priority need’ to qualify. Despite the gauntlet one has to run to join this list, number still rose by 21% in England and 17% in Wales in 2012.
Rough Sleeping: This group is formed of all those excluded from the list above, and is very hard to quantify. These numbers have risen even faster, at 31% in England. Homeless Charity Crisis claims numbers could be even higher though. Outreach workers in London performed a count which found a 62% rise in rough sleepers in the capital in just two years.
Homeless can happen to anyone. There is this dehumanising of homeless people, that many of us partake in, largely to distance ourselves from the true horror of a person reduced to holding out a cup for pennies. I remember my first lesson in homelessness was when the father of a childhood best friend’s alcoholism suddenly became out of control. We had shared family holidays and he was a big figure in my young life. His sons hero worshipped him. He lost the battle with addiction and within a few years, alienated his family and ended up sleeping rough. When I was 17, I found him in the high street picking food out of a bin. I stopped to talk to him, his face weathered, scarred and pock marked, his speech slurred, but it was as if we were just catching up. Just a few months later, I discovered he had died of pneumonia, at the age of 42. It broke my heart and scared me to death. It was the first time I found out that homeless people were not the feral underclass I had been subliminally taught to think they were – but real people, with real lives, destroyed by poverty.
The government has launched no significant programmes to take action on this issue. Quite the opposite:
- 4,000 bed spaces have been lost in cuts to housing support services
- In a recent survey by Homeless Link, nearly half of all homeless services reported budget cuts of an average 17%
Instead, they have chosen to criminalise homelessness through new anti-squatting legislation. The following is the tragic story of just one of the 6,437 people that slept rough on the streets of England during 2012/3.
Thirty five year old Daniel Guantlett froze to death in February 2013 on the porch of an empty bungalow in Aylesford, Kent (pictured above). He was on the porch because if he had entered the bungalow he would have been in breach of new ‘anti squatting’ laws.
In 2012/3, the UK Parliament passed legislation which made it possible for the police to immediately evict anyone found squatting. Since then, there have been 33 arrests, leading to ten convictions and three prison sentences. None of these court cases involved squatters displacing existing tenants, all of the properties involved were completely empty.
Daniel Guantlett had been one of those arrested, for sleeping in the disused bungalow on a previous occasion. This bungalow was empty, and was due to be bulldozed. On the night in question, Daniel chose to obey the law and settle on the porch for the night, whilst temperatures dropped to minus 2 degrees. This decision to comply with the law cost him his life.
His frigid body was found by a passer-by the following day and an inquest later confirmed he had died of hypothermia. To add to the tragedy, Daniel was the second homeless man found dead in the town that weekend.
People finding themselves without shelter should be supported by social workers and housing officers, not bullied by bailiffs and police officers. We have permitted our parliament and our police force to criminalise homelessness. This led directly to a young and destitute man freezing to death in the street, while a property lay empty behind him.
It is untenable. We have a situation where the cost of living is rising several times the rate of wages, meaning working people are over £2,000 a year worse off than in 2010. Whereas German workers received a pay rise of 2.7% in this period, roughly matching inflation in the country, UK workers received a 5.5% pay cut making them among the fastest falling wages in the 27 nations of the EU.
While wages have been cut, rents have risen 37% as unrestrained private sector landlords exploit the housing shortage by boosting rents.
Rather than tackling either exploitative employment practices, or private sector landlords, the government is simply cutting the social safety nets in place to catch those affected.
They have implemented the Bedroom Tax, withdrawing Housing Benefit from people trapped in social housing which the government deems ‘under occupied’, yet a recent study found there was no alternative accommodation available for 96% of those affected. This penalty can only be fair if users have a choice in their behaviour, otherwise the state is simply penalising citizens for its own lack of a social housing policy.
The Benefit Cap places an arbitrary limit on the amount of financial help a person can receive, regardless of the real cost of living. The government has chosen to cap the total amount of benefits any household can receive at £500 a week for single parents and couples with children, or £350 a week for single people.
This might seem like a lot to those outside of London, but the spiralling rents in the capital make this a paltry sum. A three bed property in Brixton averages £449 a week, while a two bed in Fulham is now £502 per week. This policy will make it almost impossible for the non-working and working average family to live in the nation’s capital.
The cap will impact 67,000 households in the UK. The DWP’s own figures state that the average household will lose £83 each week – but almost 20,000 households will lose over £100 per week, and 11, 390 households will lose over £150 per week.
The Chancellor has already suggested that he intends to drop the cap by another £6,000 in the future.
Enough is Enough
It is actions like these which are forcing people into the dire straits of exploitative employment, or out of their homes and onto the streets. Worse, the Labour opposition are no opposition at all. They have manifestly failed to oppose these assaults on the welfare state, not through cowardice but because they are ideologically aligned to the Coalition on economic issues.
The best means of mounting a rebellion is to support the creation of support structures outside the system. Think evolution not revolution. Instead of waiting for the cavalry charge, seek out the people building sustainable, workable alternatives where the current system is failing and throw your whole weight behind them. In short, you are needed to help build and shape the new world. Anyone can do this. In fact, the harder you are being hit, the more directly beneficial this is to you. So here are some useful means of finding shelter, food and currency NOT on offer within the status quo.
Time Banking – we may not all have money, but we all have time. Your local area will likely have a time bank, if not, set one up. People trade their time – from making cups of tea, reading stories, dog walking, plumbing, gardening all sorts. You can put in your skills, donate your time and in return you can cash in for someone else’s time doing something you need. Can’t afford to fix your fridge? Spend some time helping someone else, and then you can get someone in through the time bank.
Community Farm & Gardens – help grow food in and with your local community. Reduce your reliance on supermarkets and purchased food by growing your own, and rediscover your community with it.
Housing Cooperatives – learn to share accommodation with others, by grouping together we can create workable living spaces.
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