An expanded version of a talk to UNLEASH 13th February 2003

My local newspaper, the East London Advertiser, contained three items in this morning's edition (13th February 2003). One reported that the battle to save Spitalfields Market had been lost. 'The battle is over' was the headline. But it ended with a quotation from a representative of SMUT (Spitalfields Market Under Threat), 'We just wanted to show the Corporation of London that it can't trample all over the people of the East End and get away with it.' But that is precisely what it has done. The second described the proposed Minerva tower. which, if it goes ahead, will dominate the landscape around Aldgate, putting both St Botolph's Church and the local residents into its Babel-like shade. The third outlined a police swoop on young prostitutes in the Commercial Street area.

Each of these stories related to districts very close to where I live, and to each other. They bring home the fact that it is now -and I think this was always the case, but it has become more visibly obvious- virtually impossible to compartmentalise, or to speak coherently about homelessness without a sense of connectedness. We cannot speak of homelessness without speaking of drugs, mental health, health care generally, redundancies, migration patterns, affordable housing, government housing policy, wars internal and external, gentrification, and so on. The onward thrust of the financial district into the East End, the attempt in 'developmentspeak' to abolish the East End and replace it by 'City fringe', the encouragement of gentrification and therefore the pushing out of homeless people and prostitutes -all this is part of a connected process.

It is said, in our postmodern jargon, that we cannot see 'the big picture', but only fragments. But this too has always been so. Nevertheless, while geographical proximity to problems and needs is no guarantee of accuracy of vision, it should be remembered that people who are most involved in local issues may see the 'big picture' more accurately than national figures who may see a broad but illusory one.

Homelessness is increasingly global, affected by changes in the global economy, patterns of migration, and so on. The sociologist Saskia Sassen speaks (slightly misleadingly) of a 'sudden growth in homelessness' (Sassen 1991). UNICEF estimated in 1995 that there were 100 million children living in city streets, of whom half were in Latin America and the Caribbean. Clare Short has recently warned of the likelihood of millions of displaced persons as a result of a war against Iraq.

In the USA, it is estimated that on any night, in the city of Atlanta, there are 11,000 to 16,000 homeless persons. Yet the pattern here is changing. In Philadelphia, in 1960, 75 per cent of homeless people were over 45, and 87 per cent were white. By 1988, 86 per cent were under 45, and 87 per cent were black or ethnic minorities. In the USA as a whole it is estimated that there are between one and three million teenagers living on the streets.

I want, at the risk of the very compartmentalising that I have criticised, to isolate five areas: the changing character, and composition, of the population of homeless people; the questions around geography, 'Regeneration', and property; the questions about the 'hidden homeless' and rough sleepers'; some issues about co-option and mergers; and the questions arising from the existence of 'sacred' and 'secular' agencies. Arising out of this, I want to leave with you the specific question about whether an organisation like UNLEASH (1) is still needed.

The changing character of homelessness

First, the changing character of homelessness. When I first came to St Botolph's in 1958, the homeless people in this area were almost entirely male, white, often Scottish or Irish, over 40, generally with alcohol problems, with a sub-section who lived on bombed sites, derelict buildings, and open spaces (of which 'Itchy Park' in Whitechapel Road, where I live, was a classic example.) Since those days, homeless people have included women, younger people, black people, middle class professional people, and so on. All this is well known. Some of the shifts go back thirty or more years, some of them are more recent. Let me refer to three particular changes.

The racial composition of the homeless population has both shifted, and become more visible. White-led projects often claimed that there were no black homeless, when in fact the truth was that black homeless did not come to white-led projects. At the same time, black people were not visible as homeless. This has now changed. Ten years ago I delivered the Founder's Lecture to the Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS): while most of it remains true, what I said about race and homelessness in Britain now needs revision (Leech 1993.)

The appearance of crack cocaine needs more detailed attention than I can give here. . Chris Jencks has documented this in great detail in relation to Chicago and other US cities (Jencks 1994), while Kevin Flemen of Release in the UK estimated several years ago that 49 per cent of homeless people in London were injecting drugs. (In the general population the figure is 1 per cent.)

The numbers of homeless people from middle class and professional backgrounds has increased, and the year 1991 was a turning point. In that year there was an increase in repossession of homes because of mortgage arrears. According to government data, homeless families increased by 30 per cent in that year as a result of building society repossession - in earlier years a very unusual practice. Repossessions grew from about 2000 in 1979 to 23,000 in 1987. In addition, a study in 1996 claimed that 1 in 10 young homeless persons were graduates.

Geography, 'regeneration' and property

Secondly, the geography of homelessness. In current property development jargon, the East End of London, as it was once seen as beginning at Aldgate, no longer exists. We are now 'City fringe', one of the many products of the relentless eastward push of the City of London, the financial district within which profits matter more than persons. This itself raises urgent issues. So much work in the field of homelessness is concerned with caring for poor people. Yet we need to remember the words of R H Tawney that what thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call the problem of riches. On the 'city fringe' we are daily experiencing what is called, sometimes obscenely, 'regeneration', sometimes a euphemism for the displacement of the people. We are being told, from time to time, of the importance of 'affordable housing', but affordable by whom? The 'shrinking stock' of affordable rented housing was noted as long ago as 1962 in the London County Council's Committee of Inquiry into Homelessness, but the position has deteriorated dramatically since those early years (London County Council 1962).

Let me give you an interesting example of the shifts in geography. I live on the corner of Altab Ali Park, formerly known as St Mary's Churchyard, Whitechapel. Since the early 19th Century the park was known as 'Itchy Park' because of the numbers of homeless people, mostly vagrant alcoholics, often methylated spirit and crude spirit drinkers, who slept there. I look out onto this park all the time, and, by day and night, I can see exactly who sleeps there and what goes on there. It is a long time since I have seen any homeless person sleeping there at night. On the corner of the park, in the rooms below me, are the offices of St Botolph's Project, and a few seconds across the road is the offices of Centrepoint (which I founded in 1969). A few minutes round the corner is the office of Crisis. About ten minutes walk to the south are the offices of Thames Reach and Turning Point. So there are more paid workers in the field of homelessness in this small area than there are homeless people! I draw no particular conclusions from this except the significance of geographical shifts in the access to, and use, of territory.

Rough sleepers and 'hidden homeless'

Thirdly, the issues around rough sleepers and the 'hidden homeless'. It is clear that 'rough sleepers' are a tiny percentage of the homeless population, although much attention has been focussed on them, and the original government initiative was the Rough Sleepers Unit. Blair, before he was Prime Minister, in January 1997, spoke of the importance of being 'intolerant of homeless people on the streets'. This was the beginning of an attitude which has persisted and become more unpleasant and oppressive. Interestingly, those who objected to it at the time were accused of being alarmist, of having over-reacted, misunderstood, and so on.

There have been many street counts, although they have not included people in squats or derelict buildings. They have omitted people who were not, literally, asleep. Of course, the numbers have done down. This was, after all, the point of the exercise. But what is the point of the approach? Is it about visibility, or about focusing on such a small group in order to give the impression that 'something is being done'? And does it mean that even this small group of 'rough sleepers' has diminished or that it has simply been pushed on elsewhere, or moved into inaccessible places? To have reduced the numbers of the visible homeless is very convenient to local authorities. According to a report to the Board of St Botolph's Project on 8th July 2002, the London Boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney had no policies on homelessness because their recorded numbers of rough sleepers were less than 10!

There are, however, not surprisingly, some oddities here. In the London Borough of Newham in 1999 there were, allegedly, only 11 rough sleepers, yet the Department of the Environment was funding an outreach worker to work with young homeless, exoecting himto take on 200 cases per year!

The issue of 'hidden homeless', highlighted by Carolyn Ye-Mint in 1992 long before it became part of jargon, has recently been stressed by a writer in New York (Ye-Mint 1992; Bernstein 2001). Mary Kneafsey of St Botolph's Project suggests that, with the growth of 'Supporting', getting funding for individuals will get harder. Once benefits can only come via a Post Office account (April 2003), what happens to people with no identification? No identification,, no money, no housing benefit, no accommodation..

Co-options and mergers

Fourthly, the issues around co-options and mergers. These are two different, but connected, issues. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue (Macintyre 1981) rewrote Lord Acton's famous dictum. 'All power co-opts', claimed MacIntyre. 'Absolute power co-opts absolutely.' The history of New Labour has been marked, in the area of social policy, by a series of co-options of workers from the voluntary sector or from other non-governmental organisations, some of whom have been given senior and powerful posts within government, while others have been placed in positions of significant influence. As this has occurred, much of their earlier critical thought seems to have dissipated, and they have toed an uncritical and subservient line to New Labour policies and ideology.

While I am making personal comments (on which I -- unlike the government -- would be delighted to be criticised), let me add that I do find the apparent inability of this government to listen (I emphasise the word 'listen', I am not just saying 'hear'), to dissident and alternative voices very disturbing. I recall the late Clive Jenkins's comments, after a visit to Mrs Thatcher, when he was asked by a TV interviewer whether she had 'heard' what he said. 'Oh, yes, she heard. Her problem is not deafness, it is stupidity. She heard, but she did not understand.' The problem with New Labour is not so much stupidity, though that is present, as an arrogant authoritarianism, an utter conviction that they are right, and dissenters are just a tiresome nuisance.

The recently leaked (The Independent 2003), and now public, White Paper is yet another example of the clumsy authoritarian style of the present government, and of its apparent determination to follow North American policies in all the areas where they have most conspicuously failed. Homeless people are among the most vulnerable members of our society, precisely the people who always suffer greatly at times of economic recession and of overseas war. But military approaches are not peculiar to the approach to Iraq. There has been for some time, what the New York sociologist Herbert Gans called a 'war against the poor' (Gans 1995) and the current proposals seem to be part of this war.

The government could go further along the North American road, and instruct the police to move homeless people from central cities to inhospitable suburbs, a common practice from California to Connecticut. Or they could follow a suggestion from Atlanta and make 'urban camping' illegal - as if being homeless was a holiday.

The tragedy is that some members of the present government were among the sternest critics of this kind of approach when it came from Conservative spokespersons. But this kind of turn around is hardly new, and it will lead to the worsening of situations, something which, at one time, they saw clearly.

The issue of mergers is linked to survival. My colleague John Downie, director of St Botolph's Project (SBP) , has given me permission to quote some comments which he made recently. He points out that agencies of the SBP size -60-80 employees- are finding things difficult financially. Questions such as quality indicators, levels of accountability, the increasing cost of services, and so on, are leading such agencies to look to possible mergers, But who then do they serve? Projects may merge, get statutory funding, and then become subcontractors for government. Downie comments:

The choice seems to be one of either becoming a large, not for profit, subcontractor for government, or revitalising our charitable roots with a somewhat reduced service portfolio. The former would allow us to do more overall, and the latter would allow us to meet unmet need, and tackle it in the way we wanted....It is not just a rational matter: it strikes at our very reason for being.
Sacred and secular

Finally, the issues arising from 'sacred' and 'secular' agencies. There is a long history of Christian (and other religious) groups working in this field. Alongside them, and sometimes arising out of them, are groups which are seen as secular. This is well known. Recently, however,. there have been a number of developments. There has been an interest in, and promotion of, what the US and British governments now call 'faith communities'. These are probably still mainly Christian, but there are others. The New York Zen Centre, for example, has been active in the field for some time.

Common too are church-founded projects which have moved in a secular direction, severing any explicitly Christian links. Sometimes the local church maintains a nominal connection even though most of the workers are not Christians, and there is no interest in Christian theology in the way the project functions. My sense is that there is a good deal of confusion, mystification and ambiguity here. In their different ways, St Botolph's Project and Centrepoint are examples of groups which once had close church links and no longer do so, though there are differences between them.

There are also examples where churches once provided space and support and then ceased to do so, as in the case of the relationship between St Mary the Virgin in New York City and the Safe Space project.

There is a great deal to be said on this area, but I feel that the loss of a Christian theological dimension and socio-political critique rooted in theology is a serious matter. Without this, church based projects can become little more than social work agencies with a vaguely religious tint, or effectively secular agencies over which churches try to exercise some control. Something crucial has been lost.

My final question is: is UNLEASH still needed? If my comments in the preceding paragraph are correct, then the answer is clearly Yes. With a strengthened and courageous UNLEASH, something crucial could be regained


(1) UNLEASH, United London Ecuemnical Action with the Single Homeless, was founded in 1981. For the history see The Joy of the Journey cited below.

Unless otherwise stated, the place of publication is London.

Bernstein, Nina (2001), New York Times, 25th March
Gans, Herbert (1995), The War Against the Poor, New York, Basic Books.
The Independent (2003), 'Government to outlaw begging', 7th March.
Jencks, Christopher (1994), The Homeless, Harvard University Press, Chapter 4, 'The crack epidemic' (pp 41-48).
The Joy of the Journey (2002), UNLEASH October
Leech, Kenneth (1993), Race, Class and Homelessness in Britain and the USA, Catholic Housing Aid Society.
London County Council (1962), Agenda Paper 4171, Committee of Inquiry into Homelessness.
Sassen, Saskia (1991), The Global City, Princeton University Press.
Winning Back Our Communities (2003), HMSO.
Ye-Mint, Carolyn (1992), Who's Hiding, No Fixed Abode.