Hide but don’t seek solutions

Liverpool-born barrister turned author Imran Mahmood peeks behind closed doors at hidden homelessness and finds in it the perfect metaphor for how the government views people in need

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There’s a term that describes some of the vast numbers of homeless people in the UK and when I first came across it I was puzzled, then bemused, then saddened then angry.

“If we had the political will, we could tackle the problem and it would save us money.”

Most people are aware of homelessness when they come up against it in the most explicit ways. They either become homeless or they witness it on the streets. Of course, it’s heartbreaking to see men and women on the streets. It does something to you when you see people sitting on the pavement or under an arch or a park bench. In the split second that you are made, by your commute or your chosen path, to make their fleeting acquaintance, a thousand emotions at once flood in. And questions.

What brought them there? What could be done to help? Why is there no help? What about shelters? What about the council? How much should I give? What if it goes on drugs or alcohol? Maybe a good drink is what they need most. And so on and so on in countless different permutations. These may be familiar questions to people good enough to buy Big Issue North, and they may have come to some resolution on them. The problem is that for most people, those emotions and questions flood immediately back out again, leaching out of our systems with every stride. And then, they – who many people will resist thinking of as people with lives and histories and aspirational textures like our own – are consigned to the forgotten history of another day.

The reason for that I think, isn’t that most of us are terrible shallow people but that to some extent we recognise that the problem is enormous and like national health or taxation or the transport system, is too big a problem for us. Yes, we can pick the litter up from the streets but we can’t lay the tarmac. We can offer a kind word (and we really should always do at least that) but we can’t build the houses or create the jobs that caused the conditions that leave a person cut off from help.

But what I really wanted to talk about was the hidden homeless, living, in what is sometimes referred to as “concealed accommodation”: people sleeping on floors or sofas of friends or family – relying on their goodwill – their futures hanging in the balance in a world where permanence is measured in days, not months. The tragedy of this phenomenon in our first world nation is that it reflects a certain governmental attitude to homelessness. The initiatives (such as they are) seem to be aimed at tackling only the most visible homelessness because in this day and age what seems to matter more than delivering help to people who need it are the optics of having men and women in the streets. Naturally it’s not so much that Boris or Rishi want to avoid having to cope with the unseemliness of climbing over sleeping bodies on their way home to whatever over-decorated palace serves as their home. It’s more that the image of a street littered with humans isn’t all that good for business and it’s a soft target for votes.

The really frustrating thing for me is that if we dealt with the structural issues that cause and perpetuate homelessness not only would all of us be better for it but it would lead to considerable savings to the public purse in the long run. Take mental health as but one example. It is fairly well-known that poor mental health is not only one of the things that can tip off a domino-fall into homelessness but that it can also be a consequence of it. And yet the mental health provision in this country is woefully inadequate.

The same can be said for social housing policy. And for domestic abuse and for every one of the complex causes of homelessness. We shouldn’t really be in a position where, say, a person who through circumstances out of their control has to defend possession proceedings in court just so that the council does not describe them as intentionally homeless and consider itself to have discharged its duties to house them.

And it all circles inexorably round to the dreaded question of priority need. It is understood that where housing resources are stretched that there needs to be a system of assessing need. But there is no reason why housing resources should be as thin as they are. The government talks about hundreds of millions of pounds being allocated in homelessness reduction grants. But the big numbers are incomprehensible to most people. A £350 million investment means nothing because it can’t be easily visualised. If you break it down by region though, the figures tell their own stories. Take just one borough in London (where I live) – Southwark (population of around 300,000). The total allocation is £4.7 million. You could just about decorate Boris’s flat with that. But the real contrast is in comparison with regional figures. The whole of Liverpool, for instance (population around 900,000), where I was raised, has a total allocation of just £1.1 million. That’s not even wallpaper money for Boris.

When I visit Liverpool the thing that strikes me is that there seems, at least to a casual observer like me, to be a difference in the people. The desperation is more keen. The poverty is undoubtedly greater. I see a level of gratitude that is heart-breaking and it makes me think that life and death (or safety and insecurity, at the very least) hangs in the balance for a few pounds for many people. And then I consider the £1.1 million and am not surprised – ashamed, but not surprised. Remember, the government spends that per day on external management consultants for the sorry system that is track and trace.

I know that the money for change has to come from somewhere and I’m not even saying that the £37 billion we spent on track and trace or the £60 billion a year that we spend on defence ought to be shaved a little and have some of those shavings scattered over in this direction. Because there are always countervailing arguments (and power politics) at play when it comes to spending. I’m a barrister, not an accountant, and I don’t know what will make the numbers work. But here’s the thing, PWC are accountants and have looked at this. They estimated in a study they did a few years ago that the cost of ending homelessness over the next 20 years would be around £19 billion – which is another one of those meaningless large numbers – but to put into a form even I can understand, they added that it would deliver savings of £53.9 billion. Which is another way of saying if we had the political will, we could tackle the problem and it would save us money.

And so back to the concealed living. The hidden homeless is a kind of perfect metaphor for how the government likes to see homelessness. They’d like it to be off the streets. They’d like it to cost them nothing. They’d like it to be someone else’s problem. But above all they’d like it to be invisible.

The problem seems to be that as long as the goodwill of friends and family is there to catch people when they fall, it will never get the attention it deserves. And there is an irony there of course. Governments rely on goodwill. They rely on nurses to exercise it when the nation is in a state of peril in a pandemic. They rely on good people to put their personal safety and their own needs last. But when it comes to showing some goodwill themselves they prefer to hide. Concealed, if you like, and to never come to any suitable accommodation with the ones who need it most.

I Know What I Saw by Imran Mahmood is a thriller in which a homeless man witnesses a crime. Out now, published by Raven Books

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