Four hundred and forty-nine people died homeless on the UK’s streets in the twelve months up to October 2018. Those spinechilling figures are accompanied by the disturbing fact that homeless deaths are a rising trend, up 24 percent in just five years. These figures are also remarkable due to them being the first of their kind to be published on homeless deaths
, before this no one had bothered to count them.
Maeve McClenaghan’s Dying Homeless investigation is the reason why these figures were produced, putting an essential number against this tragic waste of life and demonstrating the urgent need for action.
No Fixed Abode follows McClenaghan’s two-year investigation into this shameful aspect of our society. The books major strength is that it provides an antidote to the dehumanisation of the homeless prevalent in our society
, by creating touching and sometimes painful portraits of a wide array of homeless people, both living and dead, and the hardships they face which all too often end in an early death. These heartbreakingly human portraits are contrasted against sharp, bleak caricatures of the state, failing in myriad ways to help those most in need.
The Dying Homeless investigation, led by McClenaghan, was carried out by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in an innovative collaboration with journalists and organisations across the UK. The amount of leg work that went into this investigation is impressive as the author travels across the UK to meet a diverse range of homeless people and those helping them. She skilfully uses each portrayal to highlight life events of the individual that played a part in them becoming homeless and the myriad failings of the state in preventing them falling through what is now an extremely threadbare social security safety net.
The cover of the book with the silhouette of a man outlined in paint portrays the particularly troubling story of Michael Cash, a 32-year-old who had been sleeping rough for 12 years, since his mother’s death. He was attacked by Aaron Jones in Teesside, who sprayed him with red paint as he was sitting against the wall of a shop. Jones posted the attack on Facebook, saying “this is how we deal with beggars… There he is sprayed to death”. Four days later Michael killed himself in a nearby graveyard.
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There are many more heartrending stories revealing the twist and turns of life that lead people to homelessness, from Sally the mother of two children escaping domestic abuse and forced to stay in unsafe and unhealthy temporary lodgings, to David the ex-army chef who had a stroke while running his own bar and restaurant. This was followed in quick succession by diagnosis with colon cancer, HIV and neurosyphilis. When David became homeless due to not being able to pay his rent, he was wrongly classed by a council worker as not in “priority need” and refused help to find accommodation.
Homeless in Manchester
There are also heart-warming stories such as that of Dave Tovey who was rescued from the brink of committing suicide by the kindness of a stranger. McClenaghan travels to Manchester to see Dave putting on a play called Man on Bench he wrote based on the incident which he credits in turning his life around. Gavin was the name of the security guard who saw Dave sitting on a park bench at night in an agitated state and about to administer a fatal injection to himself. Gavin’s intervention of sitting down and talking to Dave and listening to his troubles was the tonic needed to give Dave the strength to go on. The end of the performance brought the crowd to their feet and Dave says to them:
“I just want people to leave here and consider other people for once. We are living in a society that is trying to get rid of compassion and empathy. But I believe art can change the world.”
With the arts particularly under threat in the UK due to the pandemic lockdown, perhaps the Cummings-Johnson ventriloquist act (you know who the dummy is) also believe the same thing, and this is why they are letting many arts venues and artists go to the wall during the ongoing pandemic.
A protest march bearing a banner saying “No more homeless deaths”, which ends up outside Manchester Town Hall, is covered by Maeve as well as a visit to a squat in a former GP’s surgery in Eccles called by the squatters the “Saving People Shelter”.
Homelessness is not something that we can just blame on government and poor services, Maeve stresses: this is our problem as a society. We are all responsible for the ongoing crisis and it is up to us to act to turn it around. One particularly revealing section reveals a possibly crucial reason we as individuals within society allow this tragedy to continue.
Dr Lasana Harris of University College London tells Maeve of his work looking at people’s brain signalling patterns, using an MRI scanner, when confronted with images of different archetypal looks: an old person in a comfy cardigan, a businessman in a suit, a homeless person with a sleeping bag. The findings of the study astonished Lasana so much that he is still working on this issue ten years later. For most of the archetypal looks the medial pre-frontal cortex had been activated, but when the pictures of homeless people were viewed a different part of the brain had been activated, a part of the brain that usually fires on the viewing of objects, not people.
Lasana refers to this finding as dehumanized perception, a subconscious way for the person to avoid feeling guilty or terrible about not helping the homeless person by avoiding thinking about their pain and feelings. It is part of the same psychological process that occurs in people carrying out genocide. Lasana’s ongoing study of this phenomena has shown that it is particularly prevalent in Western meritocratic societies, and that it can be a simple process to change. Repeating the experiment Lasana asked the people viewing the pictures of homeless people whether they thought the person they were viewing liked carrots or broccoli. The data changed instantly: the subjects having to get inside the head of the person in the image started to perceive the homeless people as human.
Our broken housing policy and the false economy of austerity are identified as major causes of homelessness. Maeve describes the savaging of public services due to the austerity agenda as “death by a thousand cuts, literally”. The Right to Buy (RTB) is highlighted as a major loss of social housing, the type of housing that is essential to efficiently alleviate the housing and homelessness crisis. This loss has been exacerbated by the government’s refusal to give councils the full amount of the RTB receipts, and preventing them from borrowing money (until recently) to build more council houses. The failure of private property development companies to provide affordable or social housing, a big issue in Manchester, and the legal loopholes provided by government policy that allow this are also highlighted.
No Fixed Abode condenses down the essential elements of the causes, cures and the experience of being homeless and imbues the characters in this story with life, longings, fear and hope. It is a book that deserves to cause a shift from the state and society into a more compassionate and empathetic way of helping homeless people into the decent homes they deserve. The Office of National Statistics being spurred on by this investigation to produce official statistics on homeless deaths has provided an important for campaigners to this tragedy and the government policy failings that allow these deaths to continue. But I fear many more journalists will have to produce more excellent work like this before that change occurs. So, to be part of making that change occur the next time you see a homeless person ask yourself “do they like broccoli or carrots?” Or even better – ask them.
To order a copy of No Fixed Abode: Life and Death Among the UK’s Forgotten Homeless – click here
To find out more about the Dying Homeless investigation by the TBIJ – click here
To read The Meteor’s contributions to Dying Homeless – click here – and here
This article is part of the ‘Raising the Roof on Housing‘ series. The housing investigation theme for this series was voted as the winner of a shortlist by Meteor Community Members. To find out more about becoming a member – click here
Feature image: Conrad Bower
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