Many people were understandably outraged earlier this week when it was reported that the owners of a block of up market London flats had installed spikes outside the entrance to deter homeless people from sleeping there. It later emerged that a number of other London buildings had similar anti rough sleeping spikes, including the office block which houses the Labour Party HQ.
Unsurprisingly London Mayor Boris Johnson has waded into the row, calling for the spikes to be removed and describing them as “self defeating and stupid”. Cynics might suggest that Johnson may like to have a word with his fellow Conservatives on Westminster City Council, where it often seems that the Council’s policy is to treat all rough sleepers as potential criminals rather than as vulnerable people in need of assistance. It’s difficult to know exactly how many people are sleeping rough on our streets, although one charity puts the figure as high as 6,437 for London alone.
One good thing to come out of this row is that the mainstream media is, for once, covering homelessness in a sensitive manner. Even the Financial Times is being sympathetic, blaming the problem on “the increasingly privatised nature of public space”.
A few years ago I worked with Borderline, a charity which supports homeless Scots in London. It was interesting to note that many of Borderline’s clients had an armed forces background and that most had found themselves homeless through circumstances that were beyond their control. Many voluntary organisations do good work in trying to raise awareness of issues around homelessness and rough sleeping, but I often feel that local authorities and other public sector organisations could do more to educate the public.
In particular, I feel that more could be done to make the public aware of the various diverted giving schemes which operate in most major cities. These schemes allow the public to donate to funds which are then used to provide advice and support to homeless people.
We all need to be more aware of the real problems faced by some of the most vulnerable and neglected people in our society. Perhaps we need to remember a haunting line from the Band Aid single 30 years ago – “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”.