Saturday 15 December 2018

Homes and homelessness at Christmas by Fay Bound Alberti

This month my blog is a brief one. The reason is simple: I am moving house for the second time since August. I write surrounded by boxes that are yet to be unpacked and glasses without a home. But amidst the debris of the move, I am minded how lucky I am to have a home when so many do not.

We have become accustomed, of late, to think of the lonely at Christmas; those without family or friends, those who are widowed or suddenly alone after a period of togetherness. Media coverage tends to focus on elderly people at Christmas, quite justifiably conscious of the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of social connection and belonging during a season marked by togetherness.

The world's first Christmas card, produced in 1834

Of course, for many people, families bring sadness and discomfort and a gap between the real and the ideal. The Victorian invention of Christmas, with all its trimmings: turkeys and sprouts, long hours spent at leisure, Christmas cards and carols, is just that for many: an invention. I have written about this invention for the Wellcome Collection, which is devoting a series of articles to loneliness during the Christmas week.

There are many kinds of Christmases, many different versions of family. Yet for homeless people and refugees, Christmas brings a particular kind of loneliness. The history of loneliness has received very little attention, though we know it is both an urban, modern problem. Early modern politicians worried about 'masterless men' roaming the countryside, many of whom were soldiers, but homelessness grew exponentially as a result of urbanisation and industrialisation in the nineteenth century.

It is impossible as 2018 draws to a close, not to see the numbers of homeless people increasing.  Since the 1980s, homelessness has been a particularly growing problem in the UK (and the US), but never before has it been so visible on our streets. Tory austerity and benefit cuts have resulted in more people than ever before being homeless at Christmas, as well as all year round. This Christmas, more than 24,000 people will sleep rough in Britain over the festive period. It's a shocking statistic.

As the weather becomes colder and the spirit of Christmas falls upon us, why not spare a thought for those with no place to call home. Organisations that support the homeless at Christmas include Crisis, which not only provides a Christmas meal and companionship, but also crucial medical and physical care. The Salvation Army provides support for homeless families and individuals, while other charities support specific groups, like veterans.

Support for the homeless is needed all year round, not only at Christmas. Charities facing a glut of volunteer in the festive season find themselves chronically understaffed  the rest of the year.  Like loneliness, the emotional effects of homelessness are exacerbated by the symbolism of the season. Not everyone wants to be with other people at Christmas; not everyone celebrates Christmas. But everyone wants a place to feel safe, and somewhere to come home to.

Wishing all readers and fellow History Girls a safe and happy Christmas.


Susan Price said...

I agree with your whole post except for this:-- 'but never before has [homelessness] been so visible on our streets.'

Yes it has. Very soon after Thatcher got into power I and many others were shocked by how much, how quickly and how visibly homelessness rose. Suddenly there were homeless people outside every railway station, sleeping in every shop doorway, begging outside supermarkets.

One neat trick Thatcher employed to do this (if I remember correctly) was to prevent underage teenagers from drawing welfare. As a police officer remarked to me, this didn't stop their families throwing them out, for a variety of reasons. It also meant that teenagers leaving orphanages, who had no family, found themselves without income, support or help.

It is 'austerity' that is causing the present rise, but it's nothing new. It's the usual Tory approach by a new name. They are worse than Scrooge: they never reform.

Sue Bursztynski said...

The first time I ever saw a beggar was in London, when my mother and I were in England in 1988. I’ve seen many more in my own country since then. I’ve seen people sleeping rough in the streets of Melbourne, while the council tries to move them on. It’s so unfair! It shouldn’t take Christmas to make us think of the homeless, except perhaps that in the northern hemisphere Christmas means winter.

Fay Bound Alberti said...

Thank you both for your comments. Susan I agree with you about when homelessness started to be so visible - the current benefit cuts and austerity measures, combined with a lack of mental health services and social care is making the situation more pronounced than ever before, perhaps in regions that have not seen such extreme deprivation. And the numbers of homeless people is of course underestimated because it seldom includes those families shoved from B&B to B&B, or depending on family and friends for temporary beds.

Scrooge indeed.