There’s a scene in the US TV show The Wire where Omar and his boyfriend rob Avon Barksdale’s stash house in broad daylight. Barksdale, furious about the potential impact on his reputation, orders his men to find the culprits and bring them to justice. They scour the neighbourhood, finding the boyfriend in a local café. They kidnap him and set about torturing him, burning cigarettes in his eyes and cutting him all over. When they’re finished they leave his decaying body sprawled on top of a car in the neighbourhood as a warning for all to see. Their message is that this is what happens if you don’t play by our rules – and it isn’t pretty.
This is a brutal, cold-blooded act which seems to have very little to do with the real world. Yet while the methods are different, there’s a lot to learn from the rationale that underpins it.
Last Friday, the Manchester Evening News broke the news that the government was quietly winding up local authority funding that had been allocated to house rough sleepers in hotels during the coronavirus pandemic. This decision was then confirmed by a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The government said it gave councils a total of £3.2m in March to house rough sleepers. This may seem like a lot, but it is less than one percent of the projected £100bn cost of the furlough scheme. At the same time, the homelessness charity Crisis has been quick to criticise the decision as “completely unacceptable”, while Shelter have accused the government of abandoning “the people it set out to help.” Even Conservative MP Bob Blackman has called for rough sleepers to be permanently housed through the ‘housing first’ model, which gives people unconditional housing and support to maintain it.
Cutting funding which is vital to helping homeless people protect themselves from a potentially deadly virus is clearly not a popular decision. Meanwhile, the cost of the project is a drop in the ocean compared to the overall response to the crisis. So why has the government decided to push it through anyway and shoulder the inevitable bad press?
In his 2006 essay ‘On the Necessary Suffering of the Homeless’, psychoanalyst Patrick Declerck argues there’s an “unconscious desire of mainstream society to maintain a degree of visible suffering in the lives of the homeless.” Tory MPs don’t wake up in the morning with the specific aim of increasing the number of people who suffer the indignity of living on the street. But to legitimise its decade-long attack on the welfare state and the poverty that has accompanied it, the government has to continually feed the population the idea that poverty and destitution are a result of individual acts rather than structural failings. This is a concept huge swathes of the media have gorged on with enthusiasm.
George Orwell wrote that the capitalist system presents us with two options: “serve the money god or go under.” Yet, in our hugely unequal economy, even those who do everything by the book suffer. A report earlier this year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 56% of people in poverty are now in a working family, compared to 39% 20 years ago.
Imagine for a second – or maybe you don’t have to – that you are working two jobs in a desperate bid to keep your family afloat. You pack yourself onto buses and trains which ferry you from one form of economic activity to another, wait weeks for a doctor’s appointment and give over half your pay packet to an offshore landlord you’ve never met while damp crawls along the walls of your flat. Then one day you hear that the person you see every day on the street corner, the person who on the face of it is the antithesis of the ‘model citizen’, has been given a home. It renders your struggle pointless – you might as well down tools, go under and wait for the state to save you.
I’ve worked in frontline homelessness services and know that the majority of rough sleepers have deep-seated mental health issues which they often self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol. This makes it difficult for them to meet the conditions that guard access to a dignified life. Often these issues are rooted in early trauma which has never been resolved, and can never really be confronted while living on the streets. The ‘housing first’ model has been shown to be the most effective route out of homelessness, and far more cost effective for the public purse in the long run. It reframes adequate housing as a human right, rather than something that must be earned. In Finland, where it is national policy, rough sleeping has all but been eradicated.
But with a recession looming that’s predicted to be so deep it will make the 2008 crash look like a mere pothole, the government is sending people back onto the streets as a warning that, even in a pandemic, the state won’t be there to protect you if you stop conforming. Their message is that this is what happens if you don’t play by our rules – and it isn’t pretty.
Nye Jones is a freelance journalist specialising in housing and homelessness.