I see some people dying on the pavement as I walk to work. Then I see some other people dying in an alleyway as I walk home from work. I see them in the corner of my eyes as I meet my friends for a drink or maybe head to a restaurant. I wonder if the money for my over-priced lager in Covent Garden should really have been given to the man sobbing out his story to passers-by in the exit from Charing Cross station. So far, so me. My personal discomfort at this disgusting state of affairs is, of course, as nothing compared to the collective misery that is endured by hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens. The average age of death for a homeless man in England and Wales is 45, for a woman it is 43.
And we know that rough sleeping is just the visible, suppurating exit wound of a society shot through with deep inequality and deep poverty. Beneath the wound lies the festering mess of our so-called “housing market” exhibiting what an estate agent might call “classic Victorian period features” such as exploitative rents, chronic overcrowding and sub-standard accommodation. Here, we are just one no-fault eviction notice from entering the twilight world of sofa-surfing, unsafe hostels and run-down B&Bs or maybe squatting or riding buses - the situations that are so often the last step down the ladder before hitting the streets. Hard.
If I have money in my pocket I will often give it to the dying people on the streets and maybe feel a little better about myself. Then I read an article about how my act of generosity is misplaced and likely to help the dying person die even quicker. I may have just funded their last overdose. I might just have killed them with kindness. But, ultimately, I recoil from the idea of dictating what people should do with the money they receive. It smacks of the age-old and malign narrative of deserving and undeserving poor. It’s this sort of twisted logic that helped us get here in the first place. Call me a bluff old traditionalist but I’m fairly sure the cause of poverty is a lack of money just as having too much money is the cause of riches. In my experience, people who say this is not the case are, at best, (let’s be polite) misinformed or, at worst, those who probably want to preserve this appalling status quo for their own selfish reasons. We should call them out at every opportunity.
But I’ve noticed, increasingly these days, that I often don’t have money in my pocket. I have plastic instead and I worry that the rise of the cashless society is causing those who already have least to have even less. And so here I am living in the richest city in one of the richest countries in the world picking my way through people dying at my feet, helping where I can but also averting my eyes and quickening my pace away from the most distressing and disturbing cases. I’m sure you’ve done it too whether you’re in London or, let’s face it, almost anywhere else in the UK.
Something has gone badly wrong. We’ve had 40 years or so of economic nonsense that has seen inequality and poverty soar and become entrenched while the country gets richer overall. We now have the 1,000 richest people owning comfortably more wealth than the poorest 40% of households. We have food poverty, fuel poverty, funeral poverty and hygiene poverty alongside our homelessness and rough sleeping crisis. Despite our nation’s riches it seems we can’t afford the resources to educate our children properly or treat those with physical and mental illness or care for our frail and elderly.
Meanwhile, some politician, somewhere, is gibbering on about arriving in Sunlit Uplands at some (conveniently unspecified) future date. Well, as of now, my country looks and feels to me like a shabby, squalid place. Rather than providing a robust launchpad for “Global Britain” it feels to me as if “Local Britain” is crumbling away, bit by bit, every day. We might not yet be a failed state but it seems like a failing state. The good news is that the solution is obvious and simple. Redistribute income and wealth. No rich. No poor. Just equal. Just fair.
Bill Kerry is a co-founder of The Equality Trust.
This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust.