Most people in the UK will regard Christmas as a happy time; a day to spend with family or friends; a time to indulge.
Yet there is a significant number for whom this is not the case. One such reminder comes in the extraordinary circumstances of today’s front-page story. It is shocking that such hunger and need, in Britain, is such a very real problem. We have seen during recent weeks how strong the response to the needs of others can be. Our Christmas appeal in aid of the Felix Project’s Help a Hungry Child scheme has, staggeringly, raised more than £1m to help ensure that children can gain access to nutritious food. That we have been able to reach this total is in no small part thanks to the generosity of The Independent’s readers; we are hugely grateful.
Alongside hunger, that other basic need, shelter, remains another problem we must still face. As The Independent reported yesterday, more than 9,000 people will wake on Christmas morning in tents or in vehicles, while a similar number will have been sleeping rough on the streets, in sleeping bags or under whatever blankets they can find. Those are shocking numbers. What’s more, there are an estimated 120,000 people living in temporary accommodation such as bed and breakfasts.
The rise in homelessness is a matter of considerable concern. The increasing numbers living in cars or seeking shelter on public transport is particular notable. These ‘hidden homeless’ are frequently out of sight of the aid workers who do so much impressive work to assist rough sleepers on our cities’ streets. As a result, they frequently do not gain access to services which might help them transition back out of homelessness.
Charities including Crisis, Shelter and Centrepoint provide welcome support to those who do not have a permanent roof over their heads. And at this festive time of year we would do well to reflect on the extent to which voluntarism and charity play a vital role in improving people’s lives in so many ways in this country.
Last year’s annual appeal sought to raise funds for Centrepoint, which used the money to launch a nationwide helpline for young homeless people, and for those who are about to become homeless. That project highlighted the fact that homelessness is a tragedy which can, at times, be avoidable – hence the importance of advice being available at a very early stage.
What is also true, however, is that there are a great many factors which can lead to individuals finding themselves in a position where they do not have a place to call home. Indebtedness, family breakdown, struggles with mental health or addiction can all trigger a downward spiral. By tackling these root problems, the scourge of homelessness may be beaten – but it is an increasingly difficult task, thanks in part to policy failures by central government.
Indeed, last week the Government was accused of taking an “unacceptably complacent” attitude towards tackling homelessness by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee, which concluded that attempts by ministers to solve what it rightly described as a national crisis had ended in “abject failure”. The Government says it will eradicate rough sleeping by 2027, which seems frankly optimistic: although ultimately it is only by concerted state action that a solution can be found.
Still, if ever there were a time to reflect on how things might be done better, Christmas surely is it. As gifts are opened on Christmas morning, let us hope that those in authority – and, indeed, all of us – take a moment to consider people whose lives are not so joyful and to renew our collective commitment to making this country a better place for all its citizens in the challenging years ahead. Many of us have the means to give something back to those who are in need. It is a great privilege that we can make a difference.
We wish all our readers a Happy Christmas.
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