In April this year, 26 year old Lee Halpin was found dead in a derelict hostel. Halpin had been sleeping rough for three nights, and it is believed that he succumbed to hypothermia. However, it wasn’t just the news of a tragic death that caused this story to hit the national press. It transpired that Lee Halpin was not in fact a homeless person, but an aspiring journalist attempting to sleep rough in Newcastle for a week, in order to make a film for the Dispatches’ “Fearless Journalism” competition. The prize was a 12 month internship. Halpin used the platform to raise awareness about the rising homelessness rates, and the repercussions of welfare cuts. “I will sleep rough, scrounge for my food, interact with homeless people and immerse myself in that lifestyle as deeply as I can”, says Halpin in a YouTube video, now seen by over 180,000 people. Halpin’s ambition to raise awareness was a truly admirable one, and in death his message has reached a huge audience. However, this story goes well beyond the death of one man, however tragic. It raises uncomfortable questions about problems at the core of our society; namely the public attitude towards homelessness, and the provision of welfare for the country’s most vulnerable sectors.
Living in Oxford, we are faced with homelessness every day. The disparity in the city is undeniable – Oxford has the highest housing costs outside of London, and the fourth highest homelessness rate. Alongside the number of people sleeping rough on the street there are the “hidden homeless”, those living in hostels, temporary accommodation and shelters. Oxford City Council’s ‘No Second Night Out’ initiative and the excellent work of local charities goes some way to offering immediate help, but with cuts to welfare provision and the impact of the bedroom tax, the problems can only get worse. Crisis report a 31% rise in the average number of people sleeping on the streets per night, and this increase suggests that the £6bn cut to Housing Benefit has eroded the safety net meant to defend the vulnerable against the economic downturn. These figures are genuinely frightening, but the ripple effect of these reforms can only really be understood when we pay attention to each individual we see on the street.
Percentages and politics aside, homelessness is humanised. Lee Halpin’s investigation hinged upon engaging with homeless people, and experiencing the dangers that they face every day. When we step out of the door and see a person on our street, how do we react? In most cases, we either walk away, or uncomfortably offer our coppers before shuffling off to Tesco. Both acts are quick, even easy, but neither really helpful. Local charities warn against giving money to homeless people, as it can perpetuate substance abuse, or prevent the individual from seeking out institutions that offer more permanent solutions. The act of giving money is often a manifestation of guilt. In the very human desire to form a connection – money is the simplest way to do so.
Of course, the wish to interact is no bad thing, but how inclined is the average person to actually talk to a homeless person? Sadly, I’d say it’s unlikely. Public attitudes towards the homeless are highly disconcerting; presumptions as to the causes of homelessness are easy to make, and extremely reductive. For example, a recent incident in London saw the police confiscate the food and possessions of a group of homeless people. When asked to comment, CI John Fish stated that “the public rely on police to reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers.” These people are not victims; they are not even human. They are a “negative impact.”
What CI Fish neglects to realise is that rough sleepers are the public. Homelessness is not just vagrancy, the lack of a roof, or the violation of squatting laws. It is a condition of isolation, of complete social alienation, and as Crisis put it, it constitutes loss of a “legal and social dimension.” The experience is destructive, difficult to escape, and even harder to recover from. The average age of death for a homeless person is just 47 years old. Lee Halpin was far younger than that, but the sad irony of his story is the fact that we heard of it in the first place. If the body of your average, 47 year old homeless man was discovered in a derelict hostel, would news of it have reached the national newspapers? Would anybody notice, or even care?
It all comes down to that question. Who cares for the homeless, and who is responsible for them? On a day-to-day basis, we are. Get involved with the Oxford Homeless Action Group, with Crisis or Oxford Pathways. If the issue moves you, do something! Halpin wanted to engage with homelessness as a “frontline journalist”, but for what it’s worth, I believe we should all be on the frontline when it comes to this issue. All it takes is a walk down the street and the problem is right there, embodied by every man and woman who sits in a doorway, and on the fringes of society.