The anonymous self and the city: reflections on homelessness

Published on 19 October 2017

Image of Hadeer El Shafie

Hadeer El Shafie

DPhil Student

‘I just want to cross the ticket barrier’

I was in the usual bubble, inside my head, on the speeding train. From the corner of my eye I saw the conductor emerge, as if in a silent movie. I knew what he said, but I didn’t hear him. As I reached one hand into my wallet where I kept the tickets, the other removed the headphones from my ears. ‘That’s fine. Thank you!’ he said.  I quickly returned to my music playlist, eager to puff that bubble again around my head. But as I was doing this, a unique voice, whom I call Beautiful Voice, came from behind my left shoulder. I think I heard her say ‘I am very ill. I just want to cross the barrier’. But that is not all she said. She sobbed. She was angry. She was vulnerable.Every day I have to worry about the ticket barrier.’ Silence in the whole carriage. I can only hear the sound of her heavy breathing. ‘Twenty years of work and I couldn’t pay the mortgage. I am in the street.’

INDIA Mumbai (Bombay), Maharashtra
Taxis pass a homeless family living on a street in a Muslim quarter of the city centre near Mohammed Ali Road.
Credit: Martin Roemers / Panos

Complex causes of homelessness

Cities are not home for everyone. Beautiful Voice is one among millions of homeless people in both urban and rural areas around the world. Globally, there are over 100 million rough sleepers and about 1.5 billion who lack consistent and stable access to decent housing. Reasons for homelessness are complex and intertwined. While family dynamics and personal circumstances can lead to homelessness, there are many structural causes. These include imbalanced housing demand and supply; shrinking numbers of social housing units; cuts in housing benefits; reluctance of private landlords to rent to low-income families; and extreme increases in private sector rent charges that surpass the average increase in income levels. For example, since 2013 in London, where the number of rough sleepers increased by 75 per cent, private rents have risen by 24 per cent, while average earnings have increased by just three per cent.

The increase in rent prices provides strong incentives for landlords to ensure higher returns through renewed tenancies. Landlords could end tenancy agreements in anticipation for new, higher priced ones. But, market mechanisms are not the only reason. Other policy-related issues, directly and indirectly, impact the housing picture. In some cases, landlords have to abide by a government scheme—not a market scheme—to purchase licenses prior to renting out their houses. In some cases, landlords are required to have insurance policies on mortgages which concern tenants. Moreover, because of cuts in wear and tear tax allowances landlords are faced with higher bills to maintain properties which are then reflected in higher rent prices.

If cuts in tax allowance incentivise landlords to increase prices, cuts in housing benefits could push tenants into the streets. Evictions from private tenancies account for 78 per cent of increased levels of homelessness. This is mainly due to two reasons: (1) cuts in benefits mean it is harder to find affordable alternatives—and this translates into longer waits in temporary housing— and (2) shortages in social housing units. For example, in the UK, with the cuts in local housing allowances (LHA), the new maximum allowance is £1050 for a three-bedroom house while the average market price through private rent is £1500.  In addition to cuts, ineffective implementation makes it even more difficult for home seekers to rely on the state to find a place to live. For example, the recently introduced universal credit scheme imposes a six-week gap between application and receipt of the benefit.

Economic approaches to homelessness mask fundamental issues of inequality

Faced with a shortage of social housing ‘stock’, some city councils offered reluctant landlords £4000 in an attempt to persuade them to provide tenancies for individuals and families who receive benefits. But how effective would this be? Since the Right to Buy, two million houses moved to the private sector but have not been replaced. What was once 30 per cent state-provided social housing has now dropped to 8 per cent. In 2014, a study in east London found that just one per cent of houses in the market are available for persons or families receiving benefits.

It is against this backdrop that the debate on housing specifically, and on inequality more generally unfolded in the aftermath of the devastating fire in Grenfell Tower. The catastrophe opened a Pandora’s box of issues related to the right to the city, safety, and poverty. Jaideep Gupte situated Grenfell at the centre of the brutal global economy, where houses, (not homes), were treated as material objects that adorn the urban tissue with rather soul-less concrete stamps of real-estate investments.

Not only do economic narratives on housing fall short of providing effective solutions but they mask a deeper dimension of inequality. Treating housing through the prism of supply and demand narrows our interpretation of the issue, and consequently, we seek solutions from the same lens. Debates on housing end up being understood through material narratives—do you have a house or not, how big and where.

But even if we agree to apply an economic lens to the problem, how then could we answer the riddle of empty apartments in some of the world’s largest and most populated cities with income disparities such as Cairo and Mumbai? How do we explain the rise of homelessness in affluent cities, such as Peterborough? How can we use this approach to answer the riddle of the employed homeless? And to what extent would the presence (or lack) of elaborate/loose regulatory market mechanisms address homelessness? Do we really need to ‘buy’ landlords’ willingness to rent to people receiving benefits? On their own, regulations do not inherently breed strong guarantees against homelessness. And the opposite may be true. Using only economic narratives to explain homelessness runs the risk of neutralising the problem as an unintended externality of the system—a market failure. This might lead to a culture of misplaced acceptance where tolerating homelessness becomes an extension to the acceptance of causes of inequality more generally.

A moral crisis and the need for a changed narrative

In fact, neither houses are necessarily homes nor is homelessness just a symptom of economic failures. Homelessness is a moral crisis. The homeless are not just economically and socially marginalised, but they are discursively and morally at the periphery of the average urbanite imagination. The problem with commodification of a basic human right is that it fails to account for non-tangible, yet fundamental human values such as dignity and sense of home. The problem with the economic narrative is it skews our perceptions of value towards materialist understandings. As someone who has been homeless herself, the renowned journalist Becky Blanton reflected on her own experience, saying ‘society equates living in a permanent structure, even a shack with having value as a person’.

To change this narrative, we need to institutionalise new vocabularies that signify for the deeper meanings of homelessness. In other words, we have to change the language we use when we discuss homelessness. Beautiful Voice and others who share her unfortunate situation are mentioned in the UN’s largest convention on urban development, Habitat III. The culmination of the convention was the New Urban Agenda, which calls for more inclusive cities. In the forward section of the sixty-six-page report, ‘home’ is used to describe the urban space:

The New Urban Agenda […] is a resource for every level of government, from national to local; for civil society organizations; the private sector; constituent groups; and for all who call the urban spaces of the world “home” to realize this vision.

But for the remaining part of the report, homelessness was largely framed within economic narratives. Dignity, like home, was mentioned only once. The New Urban Agenda is a start, but this must be supported by stronger attempts from other actors. This should be reflected in the legal vocabulary, and the same for journalists, architects, researchers, policy makers and academics. We need to start a sturdier dialogue that departs from the confining views of the market narrative. We need to engage the very people who are or have experienced homelessness to be part of this dialogue. Not until we change the narrative can we address the real causes of homelessness instead of the symptoms. A re-orientation in the narrative would open the space for more innovative spaces for actions that both, introduce new approaches and nurture existing ones, such as cooperatives and co-housing schemes.  

Thus, we need to do two things in parallel. We must press on with legal and political demands that oblige governments to address the root causes of homelessness. In parallel, we must accept our social responsibility for homelessness that goes beyond charity and philanthropy.  Because giving money and food are two very accessible options to engage with homelessness, they eclipse other longer term and deeper ways of engaging with the discourse. Handing an amount of money to help the homeless is indeed a generous gesture. But the mental and emotional temporal engagement terminates quite shortly.

After the ticket barrier

When I crossed the ticket barrier, I stood by the station waiting for my friend, still remembering Beautiful Voice. A few minutes passed and I heard her, this time talking to someone she knew. She passed right in front of me. She crossed the barrier. To her, I imagined, I was just another anonymous by-stander. But to me, she was the reason I stopped to reflect on how I think about the ‘other’ in the city. What happened inside that train carriage may be seen as an example of what happens in the city every day.  When the city’s anonymity distances us, both morally and practically from the ‘other’ we leave the responsibility of finding resolutions to a handful of the few. Next time someone asks for a ticket on the train, would I give my ticket? Would more people help? Perhaps the right question to ask is, as a society, what can we do to prevent beautiful voices from spending another night in the street?

Image: In Mumbai taxis pass a homeless family living on a street in a Muslim quarter of the city centre near Mohammed Ali Road. Credit: Martin Roemers / Panos


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