Rise in homelessness and changing attitudes about family

Saturday April 07 2018

A homeless woman sleeps in the streets of Manila, Philippines, on April 7, 2018. PHOTO | NOEL CELIS | AFP


Walking into town, I find the first rough sleeper at the entrance to the underpass.

He has propped up a piece of cardboard with the words, HOMELESS: ANY SPARE CHANGE FOR A HOSTEL BED, PLEASE.

A bunk-type bed in the dormitory of a backpackers’ hostel costs about £12 (Sh1,707) a night.

In a night shelter, a bed might be available for between £2 and £5. I give him £1.

A passing lady says, “You shouldn’t do that, he’ll only spend it on drink”. I say, “I think I would, too, if I was in his shoes.”

Another beggar sits amidst the flowerbeds surrounding St Thomas’s church, and a third is camped outside Milligan’s shop (patisserie, sandwiches, coffee).


The fourth and last on my mile-long walk squats outside McDonald’s with a few coins in his Costa coffee cup.

What puzzles me is that there never used to be people sleeping out of doors.

When I grew up there were tramps, ragged, bearded men usually strung about with tin cans, who tramped the length and breadth of the British Isles, calling on housewives for a cup of tea and a slice of bread.

These men were jovially known as “knights of the road” and it was said that they chalked mysterious signs on gate posts signalling to their fellow tramps that the householder was generous or the opposite, maybe had a nasty dog, not worth a knock on the door.

But this way of life was their choice. Most tramps of those days, and there were not many of them, had no wish to stay tied to a particular hearth.

By contrast, in Britain last year a total of 4,751 people were estimated to be bedding down in the street, a 15 per cent rise on 2016 and more than double the figure recorded five years ago.

During our past harsh winter, several men died on the streets, one within yards of Parliament.

The government reacted by setting up a special fund of £30 million for local councils to help rough sleepers.

The reasons for people being homeless include family breakdowns, relationship breakdowns, drink and drugs, criminal records, indebtedness, unemployment and above all, lack of affordable housing.

“Most people become homeless because they cannot afford anywhere to live,” an expert said.

But surely 50 years ago, there were also interpersonal problems, joblessness and even greater poverty.

Could today’s situation have something to do with changing attitudes to the family?

When I was a child most houses in my working-class village had an old man or lady in the corner by the fire.

This was grandad or grandma. Today that person is in a care home.

Does the same attitude account for the homeless?

Are parents, siblings and friends no longer willing to accommodate those with problems?

Or do the homeless ones, ashamed of their failures, cut ties with family and friends and go wandering?

Either way, it is a sad situation for a so-called civilised society.

* * *

There may be nine or 10 people waiting for a bus or train and you can be sure six or seven of them will be on their mobile phones.

Now come figures from the Office of National Statistics that demonstrate mobile addiction here goes far beyond travel.

Nearly a fifth of our resting time (17 per cent) is spent using our phone or other electronic device.

When socialising, including going out to dinner, having drinks in the pub or just chatting, people spend 13 per cent of their time texting or checking their phones.

Eleven per cent of travel time is taken up using a mobile and, unbelievably, cell phones are used during six per cent of time spent at religious services.

Men under 25 dedicate the most time to a mobile phone, tablet or laptop, a total of 16 hours per week or 35 per cent of their free time.

Women in the same age range spend 29 per cent of their time with electronic devices.

* * *
Two hunters are out in the woods when one collapses. His eyes are glazed, he looks deathly pale and he doesn’t seem to be breathing.

Panicking, his friend dials the emergency services.

“Help, I think my friend is dead, he looks terrible, what can I do?”

“Okay,” the operator says, “calm down and take it easy and we will help. Now first, let’s make sure your friend is dead.”

There is a silence, punctuated by a loud bang.

“Okay,” says the hunter back on the phone, “now what?”

* * *
Customer: I cleaned my computer and now it won’t work.

Technician: What did you clean it with?

Customer: Soap and water.

Technician: What! You’re not supposed to use water on a computer.

Customer: I don’t think it was the water; I think it was the spin cycle.

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