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On 4 November, Suella Braverman took to the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people,” the Home Secretary wrote. “Living on the streets,” she claimed was – for many – “a lifestyle choice.”
Hers is a strategy that aims to restrict tents for rough sleepers. This includes, Braverman hopes, creating a new civil offence to stop charities giving tents to homeless people.
Despite a long list of shocking statements she has recently come out with, this latest announcement seems one of the hardest to fathom. Especially given the rise and rise of homelessness under her and her predecessor’s governance.
By the end of March this year, there were just shy of 80,000 households facing homelessness in England. This is the highest number on record – up some 25% since a new recording system was put in place by the Government in 2018. This new recording system is not ideal for accountability. It makes it hard to work out how bad homelessness has become under the Conservatives since 2010.
What we do know is that, at the turn of the millennium, the figures show that there were 77,986 homeless households in temporary accommodation in England, Scotland and Wales. By 2010, after a decade of Labour rule, that number had dropped some 21%. That year, a Conservative prime minister took power and homelessness began to rise again. Between 2010 and 2018 the number of homeless households in the three nations rose to reach some 96,669 – an increase in eight years of 58%.
More recently, albeit using different ways to calculate the number, there were more than 104,000 households listed in England as being in temporary accommodation. According to the charity Shelter “this is at the highest level ever”.
“Historical records,” it says, “show that numbers were consistently under half what it is today in the decades before this.” There were also some 131,000 children recorded in temporary accommodation in England in March 2023.
Indeed, there are more homeless children in England than people in the British Army (112,000 regular and reserves).
After a point, such figures become meaningless. We begin to unsee the numbers and become numb to the homeless we do see. That’s why, in this picture, when Londoners pass by a man without glancing, it is hard to blame them. London’s streets are filled with too many like him.
Some cry in their desperation. “Give me money,” a young woman asks daily outside Shepherd’s Bush underground station. Others kneel in supplication, begging for alms. Others walk the tube lines, asking for pennies in a world where few carry cash anymore.
None seem to be doing it out of choice. Driven to that place by addiction, abuse or alienation, theirs are never lives that seem chosen.
Who would claim this man – huddled under a wet sleeping bag, ignored by passing crowds who have seen the numbers of unhoused swell and swell under years of Conservative rule – is there because of a “lifestyle choice”?
Perhaps the Home Secretary would say that she did not mean him. But who did she mean then? And where can they be found?
For as I walk the streets of London, I cannot seem to find them in my camera’s window.