For the past six months, my daily entry to work has involved passing a young man who is rapidly decaying beside my office. I have seen his decline from reasonable togetherness to life in his own ordure.
This, bear in mind, was through the warm summer months. As winter is coming and the weather starts to grow colder, I fear that, like others before him, he might die on the streets of London.
If you think that is hysterical hyperbole, the mortality rates for the homeless are staggering.
Most men and women who habitually sleep on our streets will be dead before they reach the age of 50. If they get caught by a habit or hypothermia, they might not even get that far.
I know that you, too, will pass the homeless and the destitute on your way to and from the office. I know that you’ll have come to recognise familiar lodgers in doorways and on benches. I’m sure you offer some coins, maybe a coffee. What more can any of us do?
As a local politician, I have recently joined a Sub-Committee to look at the issues of homelessness on our streets. I am proud to be part of a team of dedicated colleagues, with partners from outside our authority, all sharing thoughts and ambitions.
They are all keen to do something. I also feel that we are learning with every conversation.
It seems that many of London’s homeless are dealing with complex and often highly personal issues, but there is a theme of broken relationships and isolation. Some are dealing with addiction. Most are from the UK.
Their issues are individual and specific but often they require the engagement of many agencies, particularly as people sometimes move between local authority areas. And unless they are non-UK nationals, few powers of compulsion apply, and authorities are reluctant to use those which they do have.
Police can act only if someone is visibly breaking the law or behaving antisocially (and, if it’s the latter, they will simply be excluding someone from an area). Temporary housing providers, meanwhile, can be wary of some homeless people, and some individuals themselves find living anywhere except the street threatening.
We have talked about inadequacies in the Care Act and the Vagrancy Act – nearly 200 years old. We have looked to models from other countries, and discussed schemes like “Housing First” that help individuals move away from homelessness and begin to recover.
We have talked about “hubs” for people to clean up and get food – hearing that they are great ideas, allowing vital dignity to be maintained, but also that they might sustain people on the streets rather than in warmer housing.
Nearly 50 years since Ralph McTell sang about “the streets of London”, we are still wrestling with this problem. Quite precisely, that is a disgrace for a civilisation like ours.
Like my colleagues, I am working through these issues, but I am now inclining towards the provision of a hub. If a person is not clean and fed, their dignity can fray. When it does so, they become easy prey to the vultures, drug dealers and others, who take them further towards their doom.
A shower, food, and help might just make a difference. Not to try and offer that will make none.
Nonetheless, I believe that a proper solution to homelessness in London will be beyond us in our local role as a local authority. At the very least we will need more pan-London work.
However, I believe that the City of London could also use its unique position and engage with parliament, through the Remembrancer’s office, to address any concerns we might determine with future national legislation.
We should not be afraid to champion the marginalised as eloquently as we have the prosperous.
The government and the opposition alike stress their commitment to ending rough sleeping, but while national ambition is worthy, it will be local action that helps people on the ground. The City can and should take a leading role in this endeavour.
The City of London Corporation was key to pressing the Clean Air Act in the last century. That left a noble legacy. Maybe our twenty-first century service will be to address the disgrace of our age.
We owe it to “them”. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our City.