Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A Heartwarming Festive Tale

Just before Xmas a few years ago, my friend Anna and I were enjoying a drink in a crowded bar, the atmosphere rich with boozy fumes and yuletide bonhomie. A man lingered outside, where his demeanour grew increasingly animated, even (dare I say it?) attention seeking.

Every night, this particular bar allocated a pitch to one beggar, donating leftovers and a large milky coffee in return for The Beggar Of The Day collecting tables and chairs from the pavement at closing time (enforced dignity from obligatory labour, perhaps).

It was freezing. The designated beggar waited outside warming his hands on the heater high above the door, jumping up and down, directing frosty breath towards the windows, unsettling the revellers, who averted their eyes.

Anna and I have both worked with homeless people. Official safety blankets are riddled with holes, and he could easily have fallen through (insufficient statutory need/no local connection) a situation which might well condemn a vulnerable man to sleeping rough. The temperature being well below zero, we thought we’d intervene: point him towards an emergency shelter, contact the rough sleepers initiative, or something.

I wasn’t feeling self righteous, and neither was Anna. Rough sleepers live by their wits, prey to uncertainties like the weather, public piety, capricious, self-righteous benevolence and scepticism, whilst simultaneously battling the accompanying health problems, both mental and physical.

By the time we left, the man was flamboyantly warming his hands underneath the heater, to mass indifference. As we passed, he wished us a Merry Xmas, and expectantly held out his hand. Anna posed some questions - each received a neat reply: he hadn’t contacted the shelter as he was new to town (I’d seen him around recently)… the rough sleepers initiative was run by judgemental god-botherers… (it isn’t) and so on.

He didn’t want assistance, or advice; he wanted cash, probably because he was an addict, and I wasn’t stumping up. Not through disapproval or squeamishness - but because I refused to pay for heroin which could leave him comatose on a sub zero night, when he might drift away to die quietly, alone in the dark. Other than invite him back (get real) there was nothing else I could do.

The amount of actual rough sleepers is hotly disputed. Government statistics claim that nationwide, five hundred people genuinely live on the streets. Anecdotally, and from my own observations this is a gross underestimate. Anyone crossing a city at night will glimpse spectral figures in the half distance. They are the roofless, searching for somewhere to settle in safety, keeping to the shadows, anxious to avoid the gaze of both the police and violent drunks (they often get a kicking at closing time.)

Renting is inherently precarious. Landlords can still end tenancies abruptly, and those fresh from prison or care homes might not be able to cope with finding and paying the rent. I once had a flat in a social housing block, where tenancies were occasionally allocated to people who had recently been homeless.

In one deserted flat, the caretaker was distressed to find no furniture or belongings, indeed anything homely, just unopened bills, and a card which read: ‘Happy Xmas son, glad to hear you’ve got your life in order, and have found yourself a home.’
‘Son’ was badly damaged by years on the street, and had no support network easing him back into the world of the housed. He slept in the corridor, then in the foyer, eventually wandering back onto the streets, never to return.

After rebuffing a homeless beggar, I wasn't feeling too pleased with myself as I made my way home that night. Then I saw a man carrying some large folded cardboard boxes. He slipped into the undergrowth. Discreetly but hastily, he constructed an improvised bivouac, first spreading festive bin liners on the ground to ensure a water proof base, topped by several flattened seasonal boxes as insulation against the frozen earth.

Next, a sort of cardboard coffin, lined with newspaper (another box protected his head.) Wrapped in a cocoon of blankets donated by homeless charities, he crowned another box with more bin liners. As long as it didn’t rain, this inventive man might just survive the freezing night.

Here in The Wonderful World of Rental, we are all a hair’s breadth away from homelessness. If fortune decrees a downturn, then you, me, and everyone we know could be thrown out onto the streets. Should that fate befall me, at least I will know how to assemble an effective, temporary shelter using rubbish, and I won’t expect a happy ending. Did you?


jake said...

It's a real problem. So many of us are always only a month away from homelessness. Even those who have good jobs (I have one - for now) have short term contracts and precious little security. We're paying back student loans and know it would be madness to take out the enormous loans necessary to "own" our own place.

With a correction in the housing market overdue by several years we now have the additional threat that those who overstretched themselves (our landlords) will go bust and we may have to carry the cost. Firstly because we could find ourselves duly evicted, secondly because taxes look set to go up so that the govt can bail out the dodgy lenders and landlords who initially profited from the HPI that's about to break us all.

Brown forbid that these "entrepreneurs" should have to take responsibility for the risks they took. No, our govt will continue its policy of privatising profits and socialising costs.

I have a better idea. To me it sounds so simple as to be obvious, but then I'm just a renter, so what do I know? Rather than bail out the HPI gamblers and pyramid scamsters in a desperate attempt to stem a flood of repossessions, why not use all that money that the govt suddenly seems to be able to raise in billions (eg for NR) to buy up the at-risk BTL stock and turn it into social housing? The sellers could be given a price sufficient to prevent their bankruptcy, so nobody has to lose big time. It just means an end of individuals getting to profit big time for doing next to nothing. (The moral logic of landlordism has always escaped me - why exactly does the landlord "own" the property when the tenant pays the motgage? Because the landlord has taken on the responsibility and risk of that mortgage? - well, in that case why bust the economy by maintaining lowered interest rates to save him from the consequences of that risk?)

If we don't address the problem of affordable housing as a matter of urgency we are storing up troubles we haven't even begun to imagine. For one thing, many people in their 30s aren't able to start families because they literally can't accommodate children. Fewer children means ratios of those of working age to pensioners will be even grimmer than anticipated by the time we're old. We'll be working till 80 at this rate (and still living in rental bedsits - take your cod liver oil supplements while your joints still work guys, the days of affording one bar on of your 3 bar fire could well be coming back).

renter said...

Everything you say makes perfect sense. There is now talk from the government about ending the idea that council tenancies are given on a de facto 'for life' basis. This means the end of any security. The tories saved labour the bother of ending limiting tenant's rights.
People like you and me are termed in America as the 'the working poor.'
We can't even afford dental treatment, and yet are castigated as losers for not owning property. The other big wheeze on the horizon is partial ownership. The only beneficiary to that will (surprise surprise!) be the government, as those employed on short term contracts (isn't flexible employment marvellous?) who part own their rented home (even by just 10-20%) will be affected when, should they find themselves between jobs, will be unable to claim Income Support or Housing Benefit. It's obvious to anyone with a brain (especially we humble renters) know that when 're-adjustment' comes, social housing should snap up vacant houses. I have one note of caution; these nwebuilds are the slums of the future, poorly built, badly fitted out and half-heartedly maintained. It will mean once again that ordinary people will be forced to live in crumbling homes.
And around we go.
Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

Social Housing is not the answer - it removes

Anonymous said...

Social Housing is not the only answer.

If Housing Associations were to buy up private houses for rent, it reduces supply which would push up prices for everyone else, to benefit those who can't get their **** together to afford a house, at the expense of those who can.

Is that fair? We rant and rave when the rich are privileged over and above everyone else, so why don't we rant and rave when the poor are privileged over everyone else, which is what social housing is?

I went to school, studied hard, tried hard, got a good job, got into a stable relationship and between the two of us we could afford a decent house which suited us fine. It really wasn't difficult.

Just because someone ballsed up their education, lacks the skills, iniative or enterprise to find themselves a good income or is simply demanding too much by wanting too much space, or to live in an expensive area etc, doesn't strike me as a very good reason why they should be privileged by the state or by charity. This removes the incentive to be decent, productive, and selfless (by not relying on handouts).

Much of what you write, Renter, is admirable, soundly argued and perceptive. This blog is an excellent opportunity to debate issues surrounding housing, regeneration and a lot of other public and social policy themes, and I echo the sentiment of some of the other posters who say "well done".

However, a lot of it is also based on false or even perverse logic, nostalgia and in some extreme cases, refusal to accept responsibilty. I repeat what I wrote in another post - we have all become incredibly greedy, selfish, aggressive and obsessed with "doing" rather than "being". In a way, this is reflected in one of your central themes (the obsession with owner-occupation). But in far more ways this is the biggest explanation, I feel, behind many of the problems you write about rather than legislative or policy-driven causes. We all want more - cars, holidays, wine, fancy food, labelled clothes, plastic surgery - and as a result we don't want pesky children in the way, pesky parents to look after, pesky neighbours interfering in our solipsistic universes. This relentless pursuit of more, more, more drives the parasite BTL landlords, reduces the quality of houses (to increase profit margins), and inflates house prices as buyers refuse to look at certain properties (small, unfashionable, wrong location etc), almost eliminating them from the market.

Sure, it's hard to legislate against greed, but at the end of the day we get the society we deserve. Asking the "government" to sort it out reminds me of the sickly kid at the back of the class who grasses up his tormentors because he lacks the courage to sort it out himself: it might help in the short term, but they'll still be there the next day, and the next.

babylemonade said...

As a fellow 'renter' i appreciate the fragile nature of your tenancy but i feel its a little dramatic to suggest you're at any significant risk of being homeless. There will always be other flats or bedsits to rent (albeit crap ones!) and i presume (or at least hope) you have friends and family that would never see you without shelter.

You strike me as a bright educated person, defintely employable (hey if the Guardian like you, you must be doing something right!). So lets face it you're never gonna be the person "warming his hands on the heater high above the door, jumping up and down, directing frosty breath towards the windows, unsettling the revellers, who averted their eyes".

RenterGirl said...

I'm glad your lives have been so happy. It's surprisingly easy to fall off the housing ladder, and become homeless. I have myself before now. All it takes is a simple downturn, a measure of misfortune (job loss, longterm illness) and the that pavement becomes increasingly likely. It's complacent to imagine that hard work can save you. I hope nobody has to live on the streets - I have on several occasions come within a hair's breadth of it, and only kind friends have saved me. What if you have no money (even freelance wages paid late, meaning rent paid late to an impatient landlord) no support (friends who don't believe that this could happen to someone in their network) and a wait in between flats? It's horribly, and dangerously easy to finish up with no home.
And blaming individuals for this is not helpful, but complacent to the point of disdain.
Thanks for reading, and all your provocative and interesting comments.

jake said...

Connor, your point about social housing reducing supply doesn't stand in relation to my post since I specifically suggested that the govt should buy up "at-risk BTL stock" - that is housing which is already being rented for private gain could be rented for the public good, at fair rents and giving tenants more security than is afforded by the private sector.

I have experienced short-term homelessness twice due to the insecure status of private tenancies, though fortunately I do have very good friends so I have never had to sleep on the streets.

However transitional and short-lived these periods without a fixed abode have been for me they caused enormous upheaval and stress, and I hated having to rely on the good will of friends having to squeeze up to make room for me on their sofas.

I don't know what world you are living in, but it isn't the same modern Britain as I see outside of my window. This precarious situation doesn't just apply to people who "ballsed up at school" - I'm privileged to have had a very good education; however, not everyone has had that opportunity so if it's bad for me, I can only imagine how much worse it is for many others.

I fully agree with rentergirl that blaming individuals for their misfortune is not helpful. To be charitable to you I'll put it down to a degree of naivety and innocence about how our "merocratic" society actually functions. I think everyone in the UK is about to lose any vestiges of illusion about that state of affairs pretty shortly.

jake said...

Apologies, RenterGirl, if I posted my last comment more than once. I was having problems with my browser/cognitive processes at the time.

I'd just like to add for the benefit of any of your readers who have problems understanding why it is that someone who claims to have a good job and education might find themselves without a home even for a short period of time, that it's really quite an easy situation to get into.

Shelter spent many years campaigning for legal protection for tenants whose security deposits are unfairly withheld by landlords. New legislation has now been introduced partly as a result of their campaign.

Before this was introduced, I knew many renters (myself included) who lost the equivalent of a month's rent in deposit, sometimes on multiple occasions, when they had to move from one private tenancy to another - often this was withheld on the flimsiest of pretexts - e.g. trace dust on the skirting boards which required "professional cleaning", burn marks which were on the carpet before the tenant moved in etc.

Given that you have to raise the deposit plus a month's rent in advance on each occasion you move, and given the kind of legal expertise, time, sheer force of will you'd need to ensure you were adequately covered against the possibility of being ripped off in this manner, the process of moving - yet again - became something to dread, more than an eventuality to prepare for.

I, for one, am currently hiding my head in the sand, although I suspect my current landlord has released equity on my flat and is re-mortgaged to the hilt, as he's making noises suggesting he may have to sell up at short notice if interest rates don't play out in his favour over the next few months.

I am at least, on this occasion, forewarned, but to be honest, i haven't the will to do anything about it and will probably wait for my marching orders before facing the prospect of yet another move. I just haven't the heart...

RenterGirl's already talked about the dread of moving on this blog. If you have had to do it yourself enough times you'll know just how spirit-sapping and disabling it is.

Otherwise, castigate away, see RenterGirl, me, and the many like us as Darwin's non-adapters. But remember, "fitness" only means suitability in relation to a particular environment; if a dung-heap is your ecosystem, a dung-beetle is the king of your hill.

RenterGirl said...

It is so easy to end up homeless. Tenancy protection was eroded by the tories; labour did nothing to redess the balance. The deposit withholding situation is something I have long intended to write about. Moving is expensive, and soul destroying; one of the many times I came close to rooflessness was when I visited a landlord to hand over the deposit needed for me to move in the following morning (as arranged.) He had capriciously changed his mind. Recently, I suffered a longterm severe and diabling illness which caused housing disaster.

As I have stated before, flexible employment - a philsophy espoused by Gordon Brown - means short contracts: no job security and ergo poor personal monetary stability and a dodgy credit reference.

I hope it all works out. We deserve better.