At last, homeless people find a place on the agenda

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As far as I am concerned, the general election of 1997 has got off to a good start. A subject thought to have no voter appeal at all, homelessness, has bagged the headlines.

We have also heard the first new catch-phrase of the year - "zero tolerance". I suppose homelessness would not have interrupted the opening week of the campaign if not for the chance that Tony Blair had done an interview before Christmas with The Big Issue, whose subsequent publication then provoked a junior minister at the Home Office, David Maclean, into revealing his fantasy that most beggars in London are Scots.

In its unpleasantness, "zero tolerance" has an authentic 1990s ring to it. It is the exact opposite of the "permissiveness" of the 1960s. The phrase was borrowed from the technical language of engineering where it is used to describe the tightness or looseness of a machine part; zero tolerance means no play in the fit of one part with another. American crime experts were the first to appropriate the phrase. They attached it to a new approach to policing which was pioneered earlier this decade in Boston and New York. No crime, however petty, such as dropping litter, would be ignored - "zero tolerance" for lawbreakers. Now this American policing method is being tested out in this country. And with it has come its label, a phrase with all the finality of a prison door being locked.

In his interview, published in last week's edition of The Big Issue, Mr Blair was asked whether he agreed with the experiment in zero tolerance policing being carried out in the King's Cross area of London. "Yes, I do", he answered. And in reply to a further question about whether such policing methods, where begging can become an arrestable offence, mean that society is being asked to show zero tolerance towards homeless people, Mr Blair said: "The basic principle here is to say yes it is right to be intolerant of people homeless on the streets."

So now "zero tolerance" has been transmuted from a technical description into a sort of praiseworthy "intolerance". No doubt Mr Blair meant to refer to an unfortunate state, homelessness, rather than to a set of unfortunate people, the homeless. But by using such language, the Labour Party leader is lending himself to the demonising of a particular group. We can see that Mr Blair guiltily knows this, because he prefaced the answer quoted above by saying that "obviously some people will interpret this in a way which is harsh and unpleasant".

Moreover, piously not giving money to beggars but contributing instead to charities, as is the habit of Mr Blair and many other people, is a flawed response. The giving of a small coin shows sympathy. The refusal, often blank-faced, unspoken, walking on without breaking step, displays hostility. Such negative actions cumulatively make palliative, out-reach work with the homeless more difficult.

Let us understand homelessness. Only a small proportion of homeless people resort to begging. Indeed, much of homelessness is hidden, for it comprises people squatting, people continually moving from one friend to another and people in emergency accommodation, as well as those sleeping rough. The major reason for homelessness is family breakdown; this is what puts hundreds of thousands of young single people onto the streets.

In the vanguard are those who leave care. They are compelled to depart by the age of 18 or earlier from the foster homes and institutions which replaced their original families, whereas the average age for leaving the parental home is 22. Family breakdown often has the result that young people leave in a hurry, with neither job nor accommodation in view, trusting to luck. And if things don't work out, there is nowhere to which to return; in fully functioning families young people plan their move from dependence to partial dependence, and then finally to independence - and have a fall- back position always available.

Other causes of homelessness include absence of work, especially for poorly educated young people. Youth unemployment rates are twice as high as adult rates. Homelessness is also the result of learning disabilities and mental health problems. "Care in the community" translates into absence of care on the streets. Finally, all surveys show that the number of homeless people is increasing, that the homeless are getting younger and that more of them are single women.

What can be done? Family breakdown is an issue beyond the reach of government, despite all that is said about "the family". Preventative work and the easing of the problem in a multiplicity of small ways is being carried out by the homeless charities, whose help is wide-ranging and creative. The homeless charities are well worth supporting. What government can do is to focus on the dire equation: no home, no job; no job, no home. You cannot get a job if you are homeless. This means looking at benefits, social housing and training.

Unfortunately, when the present Government examines benefits, it cuts them, especially for people under the age of 25. When I turn to the Labour leader's remedies for homelessness, another catchphrase of the moment, also borrowed from the United States, comes to mind - "tough love". As Mr Blair put it in an article on homelessness he wrote for the London Evening Standard on Thursday, he wants "hard-headed compassion that comes from a commitment to act, not simply a wish to sympathise". In effect tough love is a deal: we, society, have a duty to help you, the unfortunate, and you have a duty to help yourself. In this case, Labour says its part of the bargain will be to provide better education and skills training and to give local authorities greater scope to provide more affordable housing for rent. Which would be helpful, though hardly decisive. None the less, be grateful for small mercies. At last homelessness has got onto the political agenda.

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