Sleeping in the shadows of Big Ben

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Flickr/Garry Knight

I exited the Houses of Parliament after visiting friends, we said our goodbyes and I intended to stroll down to Charing Cross station to make my way home. With the warmth and frivolity of the Commons bars fresh in my mind I strolled up Whitehall. Past Portcullis House, past the Department of Health and crossed the road next to the memorial for Women in the War. I decided to stop on the other side of the road and take a picture – the memorial was lit in the moonlight and street lights of central London.

“Hey! Excuse me!” I turned around, expecting to be asked for directions, or money, or both. In front of me stood a woman, probably the same age as my mum, with a duffel bag over her shoulder and a bag clasped tightly in either hand. She pointed to a huddled mass on the floor outside Horse Guards Parade.

“That’s a young girl there, sleeping on the pavement. That’s not right”, she said.

“No, its not”, I thought. I am more aware than most of the dangers faced by young women alone at night. This woman who approached me, and who I later discovered was called Ray, was clearly also homeless.

She told me how her parents had come from the Caribbean in the 1950’s looking for work. We joked about how I wasn’t around then and chatted about our love for East London. I grimaced as she told me about how she had been living in the same council property for over 25 years and had recently been made homeless.

“Bedroom Tax?” I thought, “maybe a Job Seekers dispute?” – I didn’t ask.  Both of those thoughts were purely speculation, but my time working for an MP told me that they were the most probable reasons.

I tried to suggest contacting the MP of the area she was staying in most of time, or contacting Shelter. She shrugged off both of those suggestions with the air of someone who felt thoroughly demoralised by the system. She told me how she had been labelled as “voluntarily homeless” so she wasn’t entitled to social housing.

Personally, I find the idea that the system can consider someone as “voluntarily homeless” a disgusting paradox. After five or ten minutes chatting to Ray, I realised that in the time we had been talking we were the only two people on Whitehall that had been keeping an eye on that young woman curled up on the hard pavement. She was probably no older than me, and was using a rucksack as a pillow. No sleeping bag and no blanket.

I pulled the scarf I had borrowed from my Dad closer around my neck, but realised that the chill I felt was not just because of the cold October night.

I told Ray that I had better be going home. She wished me luck, asked me if I knew which way I needed to go (‘I can tell you’re not from London, are you?’) and offered me her copy of the Evening Standard which I politely declined.

As I walked up to Charing Cross and past that woman curled up on the pavement I thought about how lucky I was to have parents that could afford to keep me at home, on minimal rent, while I worked out what to do after graduating. And how guilty I felt, while reassuring myself that there was nothing I could do to help that young woman then and there.

Homelessness is a hidden crisis. It’s not just the people who you see on the street, up from 4000 in 2010\11 to nearly 6500 in 2013\14 in London alone. It’s also the increasing number of young people who are sofa surfing with their friends and even virtual strangers. It’s the mothers with their young children assigned to live in one room in a B&B.

Why is this happening in central London in 2015? Why is this happening anywhere in the world in 2015? Is it because of the Bedroom Tax? Because people are living in houses too big for them because there are no smaller alternatives? Maybe.

Is it because affording rent, let alone a mortgage, is realistically too expensive for anyone who is looking to move out on an average national salary? Perhaps. Is it because we don’t have enough houses? Whether that’s moderately priced houses for first time buyers, or enough houses of a live-able standards in social housing. Possibly.

All I know is that the housing crisis is getting worse not better, and that while there are young women sleeping on the street in the shadow of Big Ben it’s a crisis that, unlike the revelers of late night central London that strolled past that young woman, can’t be ignored.

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