The solution to homelessness in Britain is “almost laughably simple” according to Maeve McClenaghan, author of a new book on the issue.
“You have to reverse a decade of austerity cuts,” she told Socialist Worker. “And you need to spend money.”
No Fixed Abode tells the stories of the “forgotten homeless” and the campaigners fighting for change. It shows how homelessness is not inevitable.
Maeve described how rough sleeping had almost disappeared in Britain in the mid-2000s. And policies in other countries got people housed. “What struck me most was just how preventable homelessness is,” she wrote.
Homelessness strips people of their dignity, their health and sometimes their lives. Maeve began her research trying to find out how many homeless people had died in Britain. She was amazed to find the government didn’t keep figures.
The deaths she investigated are shocking.
Tony Barnard froze to death days after Christmas 2017, in the garden of the Lowestoft home he’d been evicted from. Hamid Farahi died of organ failure after living in a car in Essex. Jayne Simpson had taken a mix of drugs and alcohol when she died, aged 53, in a bank doorway in Stafford.
Cardon Banfield was only discovered because a passing walker smelt his decomposing body. He’d died in his tent in Worcester and his body, “partially mummified from the heat”, had to be identified by DNA testing. He was 74.
Such deaths sometimes make headlines. But the stories of how people are repeatedly failed by the system go unreported. “Sleeping rough was not an isolated incident,” wrote Maeve, “but a point on a long trajectory of misfortunes that had dragged people down.”
Jayne had suffered several bouts of homelessness and had fled domestic violence. Maeve wrote how women trying to escape violence “were being offered only impossible options” after cuts. “Many ended up on the streets.”
Tony had struggled with alcoholism for years, becoming less and less able to manage things such as paying his mortgage. His downward spiral was clear, yet “it had been left to the family to try and support him”.
Often Tory austerity and racism combine.
Hamid, a quantum physicist and refugee, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after being sent to fight in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
One local woman who knew him, Chrissy, told Maeve after his death, “He was such a character. He had so many stories about the war. He was just left here. It’s not right, is it?”
Cardon had first arrived in Britain from the Caribbean in 1962.
After his death, the city council said Cardon “was not known” to it and claimed he hadn’t tried to get housing support. Yet Maeve wrote, “It turned out Cardon had been on the council’s books for years.”
“It was poignant to me that in the years before his death the government’s hostile environment policy had started to target those who had arrived as part of the Windrush generation,” she added.
“People like Cardon were being told they had no right to remain.”
Maeve’s quest to monitor homeless deaths grew into a bigger project. Why were more people on the streets, sofa‑surfing or squatting? And what could be done about it?
The book shows how policies such as Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, which saw the mass selloff of council homes, had a big impact. And Tory austerity is a major factor in the recent rise in homelessness.
“I had a sense that there had been cuts to services,” she told Socialist Worker. “That wasn’t new information. But I started to understand just how deep those cuts were and how often they overlapped.
“You assume there’s a safety net. You don’t understand what the fact that it has gone means until you meet people who need it.”
The book shows how policies such as Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, which saw the mass selloff of council homes, had a big impact. And Tory austerity is a major factor in the recent rise in homelessness."
The problem goes beyond a lack of housing or low benefits, important as they are. Every service has been hit, making people more vulnerable to homelessness.
“There’s a lack of joined up thinking,” said Maeve. “But if you cut mental health or addiction support, it has a knock on effect.”
Too many people get caught in a vicious cycle. They may experience trauma and develop mental health problems. Addictions can grow as people try to cope. It becomes harder to hold down a job. Debts rise, relationships break down.
At every point there’s a lack of support, and homelessness becomes more likely.
Of course, no one’s life is set in stone. But the book shows that certain factors are linked to homelessness. “We know so clearly where the crisis moments come,” wrote Maeve. “There are many clear warning signs that someone is heading towards homelessness.”
Maeve said the “real deficit of data” regarding homelessness is combined with “a lot of inconvenient data”.
“It would be helpful not to know this data because knowing it means you have to act,” she said.
“For instance, we know that adverse childhood experiences set people up for homelessness. We know that many people become homeless after leaving care and prison.
“You can spot people in hospitals who are being discharged who will fall through the net. There are all these moments of possible intervention.”
The book illustrates how homeless people are repeatedly failed by the system.
Richard, in his 60s, had been homeless for decades. His health problems included “COPD that gets worse with the cold, cataracts, ulcers on the legs caused by cellulitis, incontinence, heart disease”.
Hospital stays were followed by “perfunctory discharges back to the streets”—whereupon Richard’s health would deteriorate again and he would be readmitted to hospital.
“Twenty-four hospital admissions and discharges in the space of just twelve months,” Maeve wrote.
At one point Maeve asks Richard whether anything is different about his case—wondering if he could be “sabotaging” any help offered. He replies, “Maybe some of it is of my own making. I’m so used to being homeless, I’ve accepted it.”
But Maeve realised that “things weren’t so simple. After being let down time and time again by society, Richard had lost all faith in the system to help him,” she wrote.
“Now, his apparent refusal to take up the help even when it was offered was perhaps some way of maintaining control of his own destiny.”
Many people understandably feel the system is stacked against them. And years of official hostility have encouraged an idea that some people aren’t worth helping.
Maeve referred to studies showing how people see homeless people not as human but as objects. She said this is “absolutely” affected by government policies.
“The Vagrancy Act still exists,” she explained. “People can be prosecuted for sitting in the wrong place or for begging. That is not a compassionate way to treat the most vulnerable in society.
“We still have this hostile immigration environment where people who have No Recourse to Public Funds literally have very few places to turn.
“We are living in a country that says some people don’t deserve to be here. It just compounds the dehumanisation.”
An important strength of the book is the respectful way it treats homeless people. Situations are not sugar-coated. But through telling people’s stories, it becomes easier to think of ourselves in their shoes.
Maeve hoped that the coronavirus pandemic might encourage more empathy. “It’s brought home just how fragile our lives are,” she said.
“It might help more people see that homelessness is not necessarily somebody’s bad choice. The tipping point into homelessness can be losing a job, bereavement, illness.”
The problem is that, whatever sympathies ordinary people might have, the Tory refusal to properly support people could push many more into homelessness.
“A huge number of people have fallen into rent arrears,” said Maeve. “Despite the government saying it would get rid of section 21, which allows no-cause evictions, that hasn’t happened. So people can be evicted very easily with little recourse.
“The unemployment rate is rocketing and there’s also a big mental health burden.”
The book details inspiring campaigners fighting for bigger changes while also taking matters into their own hands to support homeless people. Maeve said their efforts are “amazing”. But she added, “I did question several times whether this should be the responsibility of individuals.”
The growing homelessness crisis has pushed the Tories to make some progressive-sounding noises.
The Homelessness Reduction Act puts more responsibility on councils to prevent homelessness. But as Maeve wrote, this often means the dead end of advising people to look for private landlords.
And previous successful measures “came in the context of funding to councils and other services”.
The Tories have more recently pledged to end rough sleeping, yet it continues to rise. Maeve said there is a “much bigger issue of people in temporary accommodation, people sofa-surfing or in squats”.
In any case, much more needs to be done.
“I see it as like trying to bail out a bathtub without switching off the taps,” said Maeve. “More people are falling into homelessness every single day. Trying to address the end point is one thing, but we need to deal with the causes.”
So what’s the answer?
“We have a tried and tested method that eradicates rough sleeping—Housing First,” said Maeve. “It has worked in Finland. So there are solutions. But they take political will and funding.”
The Housing First policy gives homeless people permanent homes right away, removing the “stigma” of being homeless. But it has been most successful where funding for other services is also in place.
“Housing doesn’t work in a vacuum,” wrote Maeve. “It took energy, a well‑funded support system and, crucially, the spare accommodation to put it into action.”
In Britain, Maeve said the pandemic means “the inequalities and vulnerabilities in society have never been clearer”.
“There was a fantastic moment towards the start of the crisis where there was a huge push to bring people in off the streets,” she said. “It proved what could be done.”
She wrote of how the pandemic has seen policies “we were told were simply unthinkable become legitimate”—such as a universal basic income. “The Black Lives Matter protests have challenged the status quo,” she added.
Maeve said she has “hope” for the future. “We’re at a crossroads,” she said. “We could choose to build back better. Or we could go backwards and see an even worse situation.
“There is something in making sure our politicians know that homelessness can win or lose them votes. Continue to shout about the issue.
“The more we can keep the pressure on, the better chance we have.”