If you're on the street, you need more than soup

`It's just the kind of paternalistic rot that reminds one of Thatcher's drive for Britain to return to Victorian values'
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The Independent Culture
SOMEBODY OR other is always just about to solve the crisis of homelessness. At the moment Shelter and Crisis are working together to provide everyone with a bed over the turn of the Millennium. Labour made a similar promise as one of its election pledges for the Scottish Parliament, with a deadline of 2002 for eradicating homelessness, a date that has already slipped to 2003. Mark Kotecha, a businessman who sold his Internet company for pounds 10m in order to run for nomination as the Conservative candidate for London's mayor in the summer, had as a central plank of his ill-fated roster of policies a promise to end all homelessness within the capital in a year, if he was elected.

The reason why the promise to end homelessness is a particularly popular target these days, when politics has been reduced to an exercise in the setting of deadlines for achieving this, that or the other, is that theoretically the target is not a difficult or wildly expensive one to achieve.

Shelter and Crisis have every chance of finding everyone a bed for Millennium night, because there are, in fact, enough beds for pretty much everyone. Statistics have been showing for some time now that the number of hostel places available, and the number of people sleeping rough, remain approximately the same.

The trouble is that, for all sorts of reasons, people can't or won't take up the hostel places. This is partly to do with the unsuitability of the accommodation - and by that I don't mean that people would rather sleep on the streets than in a room with nasty wallpaper and a nylon duvet- cover. Some of the reasons why people don't take up hostel places are much less understandable than that, while others just make you want to weep.

Heroin addicts, for example, don't like sleeping in hostel accommodation because hostels generally have rules that debar people from shooting up drugs on their premises. The pressure group Release called last month for these regulations to be relaxed, arguing that addicts could be banned from injecting in communal areas, and that hostel workers would be able to ensure that they were injecting "safely" and at the same time nudge them towards rehabilitation.

Although this view may seem horribly seedy, the fact is that until such provisions are made for homeless addicts, they will stay on the streets. They are some of the people who are availing themselves of the soup runs and sleeping-bags that Louise Casey, head of the rough sleepers unit, said over the weekend were exacerbating, rather than combating, homelessness.

She's right, within the parameters of her argument, of course, despite the well-meaning criticism she has encountered. Making the streets a little less harsh for people to sleep on is not going to tackle the causes of homelessness, but on the other hand I don't think that such short-term help can really be encouraging homelessness that much.

The furore over Casey's remarks, which have been backed by Shelter as the sensible (though somewhat irrelevant) asides that they are, reminds me again of Mark Kotecha, the 35-year-old ex-mayoral hopeful who experienced homelessness in his early youth and is now trying to raise money for FareShare, an organisation that enables Crisis to distribute unsold food to the homeless. It is sponsored by Pret a Manger, the Covent Garden Soup Company, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's, companies that donate food that is past its sell-by date but not its use-by date.

It's the kind of paternalistic charity that makes the giver feel better than the receiver does; it reminds me of Margaret Thatcher's drive to return Britain to Victorian values, and points up her supreme success in managing to do so. If my memory serves me, Dickens himself was disapproving of the soup-kitchen solution to poverty in London, and instead was an enthusiastic proponent of sending untidily destitute types off to Australia. Alas, Australia doesn't want any of us now, unless we are members of the Royal Family, although Haringey council has adopted the spirit of the Dickensian method by floating its homeless off to new lives in Birmingham and Luton.

The reason for this, says Scott Reeve, a borough housing spokesman, is that: "We simply don't have enough building land or accommodation of our own to house all those presenting themselves as homeless. Unless homeless people can prove that they must stay in Haringey for job or medical reasons, or that they have a child who has been at school here for at least a term, we can only offer them a home outside London."

Which would suggest that the root cause of homelessness is that there are not enough affordable homes - a point on which I'm sure Louise Casey would agree with me, and a point upon which the proffering or withdrawal of cups of past-its-sell-by carrot and coriander has no bearing whatsoever.

Certainly, that is a view that would seem to be backed up by emerging patterns in rural areas, where Covent Garden soup is hard to come by, free or paid for, and where increasing numbers of young people are sleeping rough in barns and garden sheds. The reason for this emerging phenomenon, apparently, is "low wages, unemployment, limited transport and expensive housing".

Who says there's a divide between country- and city-dwellers? These two tribes seem to be suffering in exactly the same way from exactly the same problems when it comes to provision of that basic human need and right, shelter, and that less basic one, which is decently paid and dignified work.

Meanwhile the wealthy are still getting tax breaks for their valuable contribution to society, whereby they leave their large and expensive town houses empty all weekend so that they can enjoy the change of scenery offered by their large and expensive houses in the country.

Yes, yes, I know that Tony has declared the class war over, and I know that this is beginning to sound like a manifestation of that shallow and nasty creed called "the politics of envy". But if we're having trouble housing the poor, surely it is logic rather than envy which dictates that cutting VAT so that the rich can subsidise their right to have several dwellings is not very sensible.

It's more about simpler things, such as half-pint pots, pints, and how you can't fit the one into the other, which it is why it is rather amazing that such things are not galvanising political debate.

Because it is the simple things that we tend to cling to nowadays. It is easy to form a debate around Louise Casey's remarks about help for the homeless on the streets, because such a statement plucks a small symptom from a vast, difficult social malaise and reduces it to a "for or against" conundrum on which everybody can quickly form a robust opinion (in this respect it's similar to that heart-stirrer, the fox-hunting row).

But the fact is that all the charities for the homeless, which do suffer from lack of co-ordination and sometimes competitive hostility towards each other, are simply shovelling the ordure that has gathered around the underbelly of the trickle-down beast.

What has trickled down over the last 20 years is the sewage of a culture of inequality that leaves those at the bottom of the heap subject to the entire range of modern ills - including drug addiction and problems of mental illness. While they wait as the Government tinkers with the small print in this hellish social contract, they might as well have a stale Pret a Manger sandwich to munch on through the cold nights ahead.