Rough On The Street
I’ve written about street problems and rough sleeping a few times, most notably in ‘Disturbia’, in ‘Plastic’ and now in the next Bryant & May novel. The statistics are alarming and show just how close people in debt are to rough sleeping. A lost job, a missed payment and you can be out. Once you’re on the streets it can take just two weeks to bring on mental health problems, and of course it puts you in danger.
The massive rise in rough sleeping is noticeable around the world. Friends visiting LA recently noted entire camps of rough sleepers near Sunset Boulevard, and while London has comparatively few there has been a massive rise around Marble Arch.
Near my flat in Barcelona the warm nights and high unemployment rate mean many more are on the streets, but the laws seem more compassionate and allow sleeping in many designated areas during hours of darkness. One man near me has been there for three years. He’s smartly turned out, wears a tie and has an incredibly neat cardboard home which he packs up every day. At night he reads in bed by the light of a battery-powered bedside table lamp, and he has a girlfriend who comes and sits with him, as well as friends who drop by.
The rise of ‘homeless spikes’ and ‘poor doors’ outside new apartment buildings sums up our last mayor’s attitude to rough sleepers and social housing. One of the saddest things to happen during the Boris Johnson years was seeing the change in the way people heartlessly treated rough sleepers. The new mayor Sadiq Khan notes that homelessness was tackled perfectly well with resources before and is determined to do it again, which is good news.
Londoners are an accommodating lot and can be again. I live in an old warehouse next to a gated community which found itself with a young rough sleeper. The panicked response of residents instantly split them into groups that were equally in favour of bringing cups of tea and flamethrowers. Eventually an agency was called. One lady said to me; ‘I don’t personally mind him, but it will affect property prices.’ She wasn’t actually seeking to sell her flat.
One of the problems is that many people would like to help with urban problems but simply don’t know how and can’t be bothered to find out. So sofas are dumped on the street, trash piles up and everyone waits for someone else to deal with it. One neighbour said to my partner (who picks up all of the litter in our street veery day) ‘You don’t have to do that. We pay people to do it.’
People want to do the right thing, and this can be funny to watch. We don’t have many litter bins in King’s Cross, ostensibly because of the terrorism threat (so put in clear ones!) but office workers buy endless coffee and soft drinks on the way to work. They look around for a bin, find none, don’t want to drop them in the street so neatly stand them on a wall. For us to clear up.
Nobody expects a city with the size and freedoms of London to look neat (if we did we’d ban those pavement signs that get set out down every main thoroughfare) but we could help a lot more. One of the biggest changes in London is the staggering number of traditional businesses that have turned to takeouts, and now even once pleasant restaurants have taken to employing young girls who pester passers-by for business. It will be interesting to see how the streets are tackled in our new regime.