According to housing charity Shelter, one in every 200 people in the UK is homeless. In London, that figure shoots up to one in 59. We see the evidence of this in and around our stations with increased numbers of rough sleepers and people forced to beg. Several homeless people died during the recent winter storms.
There were 8,108 rough sleepers in London in 2016-2017, according to official figures. A London Assembly report suggested that as many as 13 times that number could be amongst the "hidden homeless", individuals or families with no fixed residence but who weren't receiving official support from homelessness charities or services.
Often, the image of homelessness as consisting of individuals living on the streets and sleeping on park benches can be misleading. London's homeless population also includes entire families without any fixed accommodation, having to live between shelters, hostels, and boarding houses.
Homelessness has many causes, but is part of a wider housing crisis in London. Housing is eye-wateringly expensive; in late 2017, the average rent for a two-bedroom home in London was £1,985 per month. Remarkably this was the lowest level since 2013! One set of figures found that the lowest average rent for a one bedroom flat in London was £256 per week, in Anerley, SE20. That's more than 50% of a CSA1's take-home pay.
With these prices, it's little wonder many people struggle to keep up with rent and end up on the street. Cuts to healthcare and social services, particularly mental health services, mean that people who may also be struggling with mental health issues or addiction have had support mechanisms and safety nets taken away from them, making them more vulnerable.
To solve the housing crisis, corporate development of luxury flats needs to give way to a mass council house building programme to provide affordable accommodation for working-class people. Cuts to services need to be reversed. An the obscenity of tens of thousands of homes standing empty in London - either because developers have been unable to find buyers, or because the homes are simply traded as financial collateral and their owners never intend to live in them, or because they are second, third, or fourth homes for the super rich - must end. Housing should be socialised.
Instead of looking at the root causes of homelessness and taking steps to address the lack of affordable housing, the Tories and the right-wing press prefer to demonise the homeless and encourage us to treat them as vagrants who need to be moved on by the police.
For those of us who work on stations, homeless people are a visible presence in our workplaces. Tubeworker encourages readers not to join in with heartless campaigns of demonisation. It is not our job to "clamp down" on homeless people; if there are issues with anti-social behaviour whereby passengers are being harassed or potentially stolen from, these obviously need to be addressed, but is a homeless person sitting silently in a corridor with a cardboard cup and a sign saying "Hungry, Please Help" really harming anyone? The need to ensure the safety of everyone using our stations is paramount, but this does not require us to treat homeless people like criminals.
Why not read about and support the work of campaigning groups like Focus E15, the Radical Housing Network, and the London Renters Union, which are all aiming to develop radical solutions to the housing crisis.