Columnist John Higgins argues that we have to reject some of the warped thinking about homelessness that has included some businesses installing blunted spikes to try and deter people from sleeping outside their premises
When I think about homelessness my mind drifts back to two things that seem forever entwined by proximity and irony. In 1987 a discarded match on a wooden escalator led to the Kings Cross Fire in London which killed 31 people.
For 16 years one of these was known only as ‘115’ – the number given to his body in the mortuary. Body 115 was ultimately revealed to be 72-year-old Alexander Fallon, a Scot whose life had unravelled after the death of his wife from cancer. He had sold his house in Falkirk and was living rough in London. That was why he was in Kings Cross that evening.
Around the same time the former Conservative Party chief whip Sir George Young allegedly joked that the homeless “were the people you step over when you’re coming out of the opera”.
This may sound like the sort of callous bon mot popped into the cat’s bum gob of Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, but it presents us with a very specific mindset and one I think is still prevalent: the homeless are an impediment to Sir George, a stone in his pathway, an embarrassment to be ignored, if indeed he could muster the human decency to feel embarrassed. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to businesses installing blunted spikes outside their premises, or apparatus that sprays water on people trying to sleep. Somebody thought that would be a good idea. Somebody bought it. Somebody manufactured it. Somebody designed it.
It’s a policy similar to the one I maintain with my bank statements: if you ignore it then it isn’t a problem. If it is happening somewhere else then it’s not your responsibility. But it is our responsibility.
Be warned: virtue signalling approaching. I quite often give money to the homeless (equally, and for balance, I quite often don’t give money to the homeless – I will use another cashpoint, I will cross the street). And I don’t care what they spend the money on. They can do what they like with it – good luck to them.
We live in a cold, wet country, where benefits are falling and rents are spiralling. If they can claw back some crumb of comfort with my quid then I’m happy. I don’t like to examine my motives, though, because I don’t particularly like my motives. There’s some pity in there, there’s some “there-but-for-the-grace-of God”. There’s probably quite a lot of throwing money at the problem and hoping it goes away.
I’m not proud, but I would rather be giving money than not.
We live in a supposedly Christian society but I don’t recognise a lot of Christianity in people’s attitudes to the homeless. Christianity is a heavy presence when telling women the sorts of things they should or shouldn’t be doing with their bodies, or the gender of people you’re allowed to fall in love with, but Jesus in the Bible seemed to talk about loving one another and told parables about helping the disenfranchised and needy.
That was, sort of, the point. In the future I’m going to try and do more about the epidemic of homelessness. In future I’m going to try and act more like Jesus and less like a Christian.