Leading Article: Cardboard City may be gone, but the problem of sleeping rough remains

UNDER THE Thatcher government, the "Cardboard City" around the southern end of London's Waterloo Bridge became a recurrent symbol of heartlessness. National Theatre goers edged around the cartons, mattresses and makeshift braziers. Then once in their seats, they might see a Greek chorus of actors pretending to be Cardboard City people, giving a socialist edge to Tony Harrison's adaptation of Sophocles' The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus.

The Harrison production opened in London in 1990. Mrs Thatcher almost immediately fell from office. Not even the fiercest advocate of the power of drama would claim this was cause and effect. But the prime ministers who succeeded her, John Major as well as Tony Blair, realised the force of such imagery. A specific attempt must be made to get the sleepers off the streets.

There was, of course, a clear, charitable impulse which should not be sold short. But in London especially, businessmen, shopkeepers and the tourism trade wanted to see the streets tidied up, and the Underground wanted sleepers and beggars out of the Tube stations.

The Rough Sleeper Initiative was launched in 1991. By now, pounds 250m of government money has been spent on hostel places and social work. Yesterday the Prime Minister gave a Christmas-time sales-pitch of his own Government's continuation of these policies. He unwrapped a new study carried out by the Environment Department's Rough Sleeping Unit, headed by Louise Casey. He also confirmed - for he came bearing no new money - that there will be more beds for them and more help for young people leaving council care. Between a quarter and a third of those currently on the streets have been in council care at some point.

So far, so good. But this is a very tangled social knot. The official estimate is that in England, 1,600 people sleep rough every night, between 600 and 700 of them in London. From passing observation, this may seem an underestimate. But compassion should be spiced with toughness. The Salvation Army makes its London soup run after midnight; otherwise it gives food to many people who come into the city centre for the day to beg, before catching the last bus home.

To go back, as Tony Harrison did, to classical comparisons: this is a labour like Sisyphus's, for ever pushing a boulder uphill. In a civilised country, help must be given, but it is help that will never cease to be needed. Many sleepers-out can be wooed into a regular off-street life; others will never be. None the less, Ms Carey's view that soup "is the beginning, not the end", should not blind us to real need. Many of those who sleep rough have deep-seated troubles, including drink and drugs, and they may not want to go anywhere else. They have a lessened life-expectancy, but they do not starve, nor are they short of clothes. The charities rightly see to that.

We can, and we must, help. But it is - as they say - a free country. People, including rough sleepers, and even at Christmas, have a right to go to Hell their own way.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album