Column: Homeless In The Swinging City

By Ashutosh Mishra

London: As mercury plunges and icy winds blow across this capital city scores of homeless people are sleeping rough on pavements and shop fronts with pretty little protection against the cold. Deaths are not uncommon.

Homelessness is a growing problem here with roughly 9000 people forced to spend their nights in this manner on the streets of London every year. Many of them beg to survive.

According to one newspaper last year, 8,855 people were found rough-sleeping on the capital’s streets. The problem continues to defy a solution despite efforts by the authorities. About a week ago I myself saw a couple squeezing themselves inside a cardboard box outside a shop in central London in a futile attempt to beat the night chill.

The number of rough sleepers keeps rising. The 18% year-on-year rise in 2018-19 had been described as a “national disgrace” by London mayor, Sadiq Khan who had blamed the crisis on welfare cuts and a lack of investment in social housing.

According to one study, an estimated 726 people died while homeless in England and Wales in 2018, an average of two every day. The average age of death was just 45 for men and 43 for women, compared with 76 for men and 81 for women among the rest of the population.

Six in ten rough sleepers surveyed said they had been insulted by a member of the public, and one in ten said that they had been urinated upon. Besides homeless people are 17 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than the general public, and 47 times more likely to be victims of theft.

The study showed that more than one in three rough sleepers was deliberately hit, kicked, or experienced some other form of violence. Three in ten females forced to spend nights in such difficult circumstances experience sexual violence at some point or the other.

A prominent newspaper has given a moving account of how homeless mourners recently dragged suitcases filled with their worldly possessions into Trafalgar Square’s church to pay respects to rough sleepers who died on London streets. It said nearly 150 people were known to have perished sleeping rough last year, the average age for women to die being 43, nearly four decades younger than the British norm. Many lay dead for hours before being found.
At the church service, there were performances by homeless operas singers and choristers, bringing tears to many eyes. Tents were erected at the altar as a memorial.

There are charities working to bring relief to the homeless and at least one media house has launched an elaborate campaign to draw the attention of the public and the government to the plight of those without shelter.

There are, however, no signs of homelessness emerging as a major campaign issue in the December 12 elections even though leaders have been talking in general terms about the need for enhanced health and social security. The focus is too much on Brexit which seems to have overshadowed everything else. This is unfortunate as issues like homelessness deserve to be put on the front burner immediately.

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