Johann Hari: David Cameron’s assault on the homeless is Dickensian

The Tory council believes he is "encouraged" here by the free food, I tell him. He looks down at his sandwich and asks softly: "What planet are they on?"

Johann Hari
Friday 04 March 2011 01:00

Earlier this week, the Tory-run Westminster Council, one of the richest in Britain, announced a ban on sleeping on the streets, or feeding anybody who does. They say giving Steven food only “encourages” him to be homeless. So on Tuesday night, I went on one of the soon-to-be-criminalized soup runs. I walked around the neon warrens of the West End – through the theatre-throngs, and past the fancy fashion stores – with two volunteers from the charity the Simon Community.

Cynthia Jameson and Mark Jones know by name all the homeless people they give soup, sandwiches and coffee to. They know their anxieties, their foibles, and their jokes. There’s Steven. There’s Greg, who believes he has discovered a cure for malaria, but the UN has stolen and destroyed it. There’s Andrew, shivering with heroin-withdrawal. There’s the Chinese man who can’t speak English but smiles with gratitude as he shovels five sugars into his tea. And, these days, there are new faces every time they come. Phil is a 27 year-old who has only been out on the streets for three weeks. “I worked in construction for twelve years, but this recession is so bad now there’s just no work,” he tells me. “I couldn’t pay my rent, so I got chucked out. I never thought this would happen to me. I’m so ashamed.” I tell him the Tory council believes he is “encouraged” here by the free food. He looks down at his sandwich and asks softly: “What planet are they on?”

Cynthia and I pause outside the Covent Garden Opera House. With the light reflecting in her eyes, she shakes her head and says: “How can they make it a crime to show kindness like this?”

Westminster Council is taking this action pre-emptively because they know that rough sleeping is about to sky-rocket as a direct result of David Cameron’s policies. To understand why, you have to go back a few decades. One of the symbols of Thatcher’s Britain was the Cardboard City that suddenly appeared in every town. But then they largely vanished. It wasn’t by accident. The last Labour government did some appalling things, but the homeless charities agree they had at least one remarkable achievement: they brought the number of rough sleepers crashing down by a startling 75 percent. Why? The specialists agree: Labour set up a dedicated Rough Sleepers Unit, and lavished money on it. Homeless shelters became well-staffed with professionals who had the time to listen, and the money to get homeless people the training and support they needed to start living a decent life again.

Now all that is being dismantled. David Cameron is slashing the money that is given to local councils, who have the legal responsibility to house the homeless – and the result is entirely predictable. Cornwall is slashing its spending on the homeless by 40 percent. Southwark is slashing it by 50 percent. Nottingham is slashing it by 70 percent. Across Britain, services for the homeless are closing. The ones that remain will have a skeleton staff, opening and shutting the hostel doors but not providing the long-term support that actually gets people off the streets. I couldn’t find a single person in the field who believes Cameron’s claim that volunteers will make up the difference – or even get a tenth of the way there.

This is being done at a time when the number of people needing those hostels and that support is set to sky-rocket. Some 90,000 single tenants and 82,000 families are facing eviction from their homes because of Housing Benefit cuts. Some will end up on friends’ sofas, or in emergency B&Bs. But a lot will end up on the streets. More and more people will be scrambling for fewer, feebler shelters – and all the Tories can think to do is try to ban people from feeding the victims. Their only hope is to turn our media into a Murdochracy, where the real news will be drowned out by an orgy of blaming the victims. Even people unmoved by basic human sympathy can surely see that all this is a recipe for a crime explosion.

James Cummings knows better than anyone what Cameron’s policies will mean. He was a manager in pubs and hotels all his life, but after his marriage broke down, he found himself glugging his way into severe alcoholism. He eventually lost his job in 2008 and ended up under a bridge in Elephant and Castle. He was found by a government outreach worker. She linked him up with a government-funded charity who took him in, got him a hostel bed, and got him training in IT. “Now I’ve got a good job and I’m paying taxes,” he tells me with justified pride, “but Cameron… is cutting to ribbons all the services that turned my life around. The hostel that took me in has closed now, and the charity that got me my training is facing huge cuts [in its grants].” So what would have happened if you had become homeless this year, in Cameron-Land? “I’d still be out there on the streets,” he says. In fact, it’s unlikely he would have lived to see this day: the average life expectancy for a homeless man is 42, and he is 50.

None of this is happening out of financial necessity. All of these cuts to services for the homeless could have been stopped if Cameron had moved one figure on a spreadsheet: if he had taken the £1bn in taxpayers’ money paid in bonuses to RBS bankers, and ringfenced it for the homeless instead.

At the end of the soup run, I watched Steven walk off into the darkness, trying once again to outpace his grief – and I glimpsed the skyline of the City of London glinting in the distance. The people in those towers caused this economic crisis. They crashed the global economy. But they are richer than ever, partying like it’s 1999 with our money – while the chance of Steven getting a bed for the night, a bowl of soup in his stomach, or a path back to a normal life is being stripped away. Why is David Cameron punishing him for their crimes?

* For updates on this article and others, you can follow Johann on Twitter at

* This Sunday, Johann will be interviewing the Israeli dissident Gideon Levy on stage. For more information, click here.

* This Tuesday, Johann is speaking at Village Drinks on the topic 'Is There A Gay Agenda?' For more information, click here.

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