Manchester cave dwellers: Out of sight, out of mind

Our urban skins get ever thicker to the soaring numbers of people living on the streets. My solution? Keep building up that sense of comfortable numbness

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The Independent Online

Homeless men and women close to Stockport, Greater Manchester have been found living in a cave system, huddled in sandstone hideyholes amongst rubbish and food scraps, close to whatever they use as a toilet. Imagine an otherwordly scene from Lord of The Rings, but instead of Hobbits and  quests to overcome the dark lord Sauron, actual human beings like you and me and the simple quest to stay alive.

Wellspring, a local homeless charity, say that compared to rough sleeping in the town, the cave-dwellers at least find their new home safe and dry. Britain’s homeless problem burgeons, becoming more complex year on year. Plain facts: the financial crisis of recent years has driven up unemployment to 7.8 per cent. Meanwhile, the cost of living has risen along with house prices, and numbers of homeless people have rocketed. In London homelessness rose by 16 per cent in 2012-13, meanwhile parts of Greater Manchester saw rises of as much as 40 per cent.

When I saw pictures of the cave people in the greater Manchester area, my immediate gut-reaction was to write about them – because no one in modern Britain should live in a cave –  but within minutes I questioned whether it was really a story at all. Deep down, who would actually care? Perhaps it’s not the ever-plummeting level of squalor in which we permit human beings in Britain to live that’s of most interest here. What’s interesting is the ever-effective numbness of “the haves” – myself included when faced with “the have-nothings”.

In truth, I often spend a few moments – for the sake of my sanity – trying not to care remotely about the homeless. That girl who sits on the pavement near my house, staring at the floor, day after day, holding a paper cup for change, she’s not homeless really is she? No, most probably she’s part of a begging gang. I can ignore her. I’m very busy. And the skeletal man on crutches who sits in the Tube doorway, sometimes weeping, well I’ve seen him get on the number 158 bus so he must be going somewhere. That’s it, not homeless. Guilt absolved. And that crowd of men and women drinking themselves to death publicly, like a ghoulish piece of performance art, erecting their cardboard bedroom in the doorway of my local library, well, what can actually be done for them? Nothing, I think. In fact part of me is irate at them for messing up the aesthetic splendour of a newly stonewashed building. And will no one think of my house price?

At one point such fetid thoughts would never have crossed my mind, but the downturn has been long, the homeless keep multiplying, and our urban skins become ever thicker. So like most bleeding-heart liberals I am pained by the cave people of Stockport, but am yet to go into full St Francis of Assisi mode, and fling open my own front door.

Instead, I sit patiently waiting for “something to be done”, such as the industrious hammering up of the “affordable homes” that several Governments in my lifetime have promised. Obviously, in truth, builders and councils have no true interest in building dirt-cheap accommodation. That’s why flyers for luxury two-bedroom executive apartments, for £250,000, flood my letterbox daily. Neither do I envisage a full-throated “Golly, we were wrong” return to public housing by the Conservatives – or Labour having any muscle to do anything, especially as these days socialists love owning homes too.

Broadly speaking, I would say the Government has no real concern or plans for the rising numbers of rough sleepers, as the impoverished don’t fit in with ideals of enterprise or self-interest. Obviously, several ears may have pricked up when an advertising agency experimented with making homeless people  into 4G hotspots, in Texas, last March, but attention dwindled soon after. Furthermore I hold no hope of the homeless wangling their way onto half-buy schemes, of which the paperwork is more flummoxing and the cost more expensive than a regular mortgage. Do I have any solutions? One-bedroom stackable pods, built by charities (aka The Nimby armageddon)? Wide-scale homelessness “boot camps” where thousands of jobless graduates, trained in social care, help people in a life quandary? OK, that’s a bit kumbayah isn’t it? And, now I’ve written it down, perhaps a tiny bit Third Reich too. So, indeed, my current approach to homelessness is to build on my ongoing, ever-comfortable numbness, possibly leading one day to my simply stepping over a corpse on the way to ASDA mumbling “Oh, what a shame! Something must really be done.” If anything, Stockport’s cave people might be making a point. They’re isolated from help, but at least they’re avoiding our hand-wringing and ultimate hypocrisy.

Prism? I’ve already clicked my privacy away

I’m not angry or shocked about the discovery of “Prism”. Obama possibly knows this. I’m sure he has nothing better to do than read my emails, savouring details of my parents’ trip to Blackpool (where the food was actually ever so good), and my ongoing deliberations over what Farrow & Ball shade to paint my spare room (Dappled Gonad, subject to change).

I began giving the internet all my secrets in 1999 when I started a long-term love affair with Yahoo, MSN, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Twitter, AOL, Virgin Media and the Apple store. I ticked boxes I didn’t understand under contracts I didn’t read to collude with them that they would never forget anything I ever did. “You can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said on Sunday, before retiring to the Oval office to peruse some Facebook pictures of me singing “Folsom Prison Blues” at karaoke. As that’s the greatest act of terrorism I’m planning on committing this decade, his spooks can monitor me as much as they desire.