Tommy Mac on the streets of London

A solution to homelessness? The Black Death.

in Big Issues

With a logic that cannot be defied, Pissed-off Toff analyses the current homelessness crisis, and proposes a solution.

Generally, I walk past them with a shudder of horror and fear. Horror, for what they are reduced to; and fear, for the thought that but for the grace of God, there go I.

On this late December evening, however, it was different. Perhaps because this was the season of goodwill, or perhaps because the number of rough sleepers in London is a phenomenon that can no longer be ignored … perhaps because of these things, I paused in front of the sad figure encamped in a doorway somewhere in Westminster.

“Hello,” I said, “can I talk to you? Would you tell me something about yourself?”

Used to pariah status, and perhaps surprised that anyone from the normal world wanted to engage with him, he readily agreed. We spoke for a quarter of an hour or so. This, briefly, is his story.

* * * * *

In this recessed doorway half-protected from the elements, the man is lying on top of his sleeping bag. Propped up on an elbow, he is rolling himself a cigarette in a disconsolate manner. There is no sign of any alcohol, and he is making good sense.

He is 52 years old, he was born in Scotland, and his name, he says, is Tommy Mac. This I take to be a nom de guerre for the streets of London. His real name, presumably, is Tommy McSomething-or-other.

Tommy’s mother died when he was a boy, he says. Then, when he was sixteen, his father threw him out. “Do you have any skills or qualifications, trade-wise?” I ask him. The answer is no. But, he says, he is good with his hands, and might have been a handy-man. It seems likely, therefore, that after being thrown out of his home, Tommy worked on a building site, or did some similar job, in the good times when work was easily come by, even for those at the bottom.

At some stage, however, Tommy wound up on Social Security, and then lost his benefits. He is vague as to the reason for this. But we can guess, can’t we? Tommy Mac was on the dole; he was also moonlighting; and he got caught; so no more benefits. That seems the most likely scenario.

Later, Tommy says, he was in a relationship with a nurse who worked in a psychiatric ward in the Lake District. But that came to an end, and she threw him out. “I went straight from being in a relationship, to being on the streets,” he says. Furthermore, he could not claim benefits. “No address, no benefits,” he explains. So he wound up in London.

How does he get by, I ask him. He begs outside Victoria railway station, comes the answer. And how much does that get him? “Between £20 an £80 a day,” says Tommy. Not bad, I think. He then expands on this occupation. “The rain is bad for begging,” he explains. “People have their faces down and don’t give. Good weather is better.”

I reflect that begging is netting Tommy much more than he would be earning than if he were working on the National Minimum Wage (currently just under £8 per hour). Sitting outside Victoria, he can, on a good day, hope to ‘earn’ exactly the same as a cleaning woman (£10 cash per hour).

But could he in fact do a day’s work? “I’m medically written off,” he says. “Ulcers in my bowels.” Tommy seems to have interiorised the idea that he can never do anything useful again.

What, then, is the shape of his day? And how does he eat?

For food, he says, he relies on the local homelessness charity. They treat him royally, providing a ‘full English’ breakfast in the morning. “Sausages, bacon, fried eggs, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs,” says Tommy. “Toast and marmalade and cereal and muesli and porridge and Coco-Pops, too.” It’s all donated by the public, he says. Then, at midday, there’s ‘dinner’, with more food, limitlessly offered. But nothing in the evening.

Nevertheless, if there’s one thing that Tommy Mac can never fear, it is starvation. In London at any rate, free food is abundant, even limitless. If, over Christmas, the scene outside Westminster Cathedral was not exactly festive, it was not entirely unhappy either … the rough sleepers were inundated by offerings of mince pies and similar goodies.

As for the shape of Tommy’s day: he listens to the radio … powered by batteries stolen from local shops, he confesses. Nor does shoplifting represent a risk for Tommy. He is at the bottom. His life cannot get any worse. Indeed, if he gets locked up for nicking a packet of batteries, he has a warm bed for the night; so he has nothing to fear from the law.

Still on the topic of everyday life, does he have any friends? “You don’t have no friends on the street,” he replies. “The street is fucking dangerous.” And what contact with ordinary humanity? “No friends with ordinary lives.”

Another aspect of life on the streets is theft. No rough sleeper’s possessions are safe for one moment. Tommy once had a mobile, he told me, but it was stolen. The street is the jungle.

Any family, perhaps? “I have three older brothers, and one sister,” he says. “They know I’m on the street, but they won’t help.”

So how, then, do you see your future, I ask. “It’s difficult to get back on your feet,” he replies. “I hope them people round the corner will help,” he continues, referring to the local homelessness charity. “They have a duty of care.”

In mentioning a ‘duty of care’ Tommy is quoting a bit of jargon that he has picked up along the way. However, in law the local charity has no ‘duty of care’. They just do what they can. As for the local Council, they have no ‘duty of care’ towards Tommy, either. Being a single man with no dependent children, Tommy does not have what, to quote the jargon again, is called a ‘priority need’. Put another way, and to quote more social-care jargon, the Council does not have a ‘main homelessness duty’ in his respect.

As far as any state entities are concerned, Tommy is therefore on his own. Not only that, but the local Council will do everything they can to avoid helping him. They are already inundated, their budget stretched to the limit. They have no legal obligations towards him; therefore, in a process which is known as ‘gatekeeping’, they will keep him at arm’s length.

And the awful fact of the matter is that if he carries on like this, Tommy will have only three or four years to live (I have this reliably, from a social worker). The soul and body can take only so much rough sleeping. Then both pack up.

* * * * *

But Tommy is hoping that someone, from somewhere, will save him. “I just want this to end,” he says. And in his less gloomy moments, he might even think that the end is in sight … because here we have the Government announcing that they want to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it altogether by 2027.

Let’s look at this.

Rough sleeping is the tip of a large iceberg called homelessness. One is the extension of the other. Like the iceberg under the surface of the cold waters, homelessness is hidden and invisible. It consists of hundreds of thousands of people whose housing situation is precarious and endangered. These are people who at any moment might have nowhere to live. While they remain as unwelcome guests or lodgers, or as temporary tenants or still-less-welcome ‘sofa-surfers’, they are the ‘hidden homeless’, to quote the jargon. But if their life takes a turn for the worse, they emerge from their hidden homelessness state, and become part of the visible tip of the vast iceberg which lies beneath. They become rough sleepers.

This point bears repeating: homelessness and rough sleeping are the same thing; the latter is just the most extreme and distressing manifestation of the former.

* * * * *

But let us just imagine that this Government were to decide that from one day to the next, it wished to abolish rough sleeping. What would it do? What magic wand might it wave?

Easy. They would pass an Act of Parliament in which rough sleepers would be freshly classed as having a ‘priority need’. The moment that came to pass, all local Councils would no longer be able to ignore rough sleepers, but would be obliged in law to take them off the streets and to offer them free accommodation, as for all ‘priority need’ people.

Job done! Bingo!! Simples!!! No more rough sleepers!!!!

However, I don’t think so.

Consider. All accommodation is more or less fully used. So where is the capacity? And who would pay for such a move? The Councils are already stretched to the limit, they have no more money.

Then consider the so-called ‘moral hazard’ of such a policy. If you say that anyone sleeping on the streets will automatically be offered free accommodation, leading perhaps to a permanent home at public expense … if you say this, what forces are you unleashing? If this becomes policy, then anyone in a tight spot will say: “Oops, I’ve messed up. But no problem. I’ll go and camp on the streets for a night, and the Council will rescue me and will give me a home, paid for by the taxpayer.” Perversely, a policy of offering accommodation to all rough sleepers would encourage the very phenomenon it was designed to eliminate.

Furthermore, if the Government were to rescue all rough sleepers from the streets … well then, one might not mind if these were UK nationals … but a large proportion of them are the dregs of Eastern Europe. Are we to rescue them? Is the British taxpayer meant to house, at public expense, an army of tramps from Bulgaria?

Furthermore, again: if you were a young married British couple living with parents, because unable to afford the very high rents now demanded … if you were them, both working, and if you heard that foreign tramps were being offered privileged treatment at the taxpayer’s expense, while you were unable to start your own family … well, how would that feel?

There is no getting around it. The ‘moral hazard’ of offering housing to rough sleepers while ignoring the natural needs and desires of ordinary working people, is considerable.

* * * * *

What, then, are the facts behind homelessness and rough sleeping?

The population of the United Kingdom is currently about 66¾ million (UN estimate) and is increasing at a rate of about 0.6% per year ( and others). That is to say, every year, the population of the UK is increasing by about 400,000 people, which is enough to fill a city roughly the size of Leicester.

This population growth of 400,000 people or 0.6% of pop. per annum is mainly a result of massive net incoming migration into the UK. The current official net migration figure into the UK stands at 273,000 per annum. This is almost certainly an under-estimate. So call it 300,000 at the very least. In other words (and this is not something that can be disputed; it is a simple fact), fully three-quarters of population growth in the UK is due to mass immigration.

And where will all these people live?

Answer: God knows. Because whilst the demand for housing – most especially affordable housing – grows and grows and grows, the supply falls consistently short.

In the end, it is all maths and inescapable logic. If you have an ever-increasing population, and a housing supply that never keeps up with demand, then there can be only one result: an ever-increasing cost of housing, with homelessness and rough sleeping ever more apparent at the fringes.

That is what we are seeing now. And it will only get worse.

* * * * *

What, you might ask, is the solution?

It is simple. The solution to the current crisis of homelessness and rough sleeping in the UK is two-fold.

One. Granted that three quarters of the increase in UK population, and therefore three quarters of the demand for limited new housing supply, is caused by mass net immigration into the UK of about 300,000 people per annum … granted this, net incoming migration must immediately be reduced to the tens of thousands.

Two. The Government should initiatiate an extensive programme of building affordable housing.

Oh, and as an after-thought: the Government should immediately abandon the misguided policy of allowing local Councils to sell off social housing cheap to existing occupants. Not only is this policy grossly unfair; but it also depletes the valuable stock of social housing, which in most cases is not replenished.

* * * * *

But granted that the current Government can’t even boil an egg, action as decisive as this will never happen. So where does that leave us?

Well … it leaves us with an act of God, perhaps.

Back in the Middle Ages, that is what they called the Black Death. Not only did this manisfestation of Divine Will cull about one-third of the population of England, but in doing so it freed up an awful lot of housing and also resulted in a marked increase in the wages of labourers, who were more scarce after the plague than before.

Yes, a revisitation of the bubonic plague would sort out a great deal, just as it did in 1348. So roll on the Black Death …


PS: How did I leave it with Tommy Mac? Could one have invited him back home for a hot bath and a bed for the night? Absolutely not. That would have been madness. First of all: cruel, because you’d give him a nice cup of hot chocolate by a nice hot fire and then kick him out. And secondly: stupid, because much tho’ I feel for him, Tommy Mac is undoubtedly light-fingered. So I gave him a tenner, wished him well, and walked on.

Click here to print this article (text only).