Britain’s poorest, most marginalised, abandoned, and ignored people suffer and die on the streets and live lives that are unknown to most of us, but would be familiar to Victorian social reformers investigating the squalor of the East End of London in the 1890s.
In the nine years that I have been working in counselling and psychotherapy, several were spent in the Riverside area of Cardiff working with the most vulnerable and chaotic street drinkers, addicts, and people with acute mental health needs. It became abundantly clear during this time how fragile the services supporting these very high need individuals were and how austerity had swung like a wrecking ball through all of them.
The people in this article and the events I describe are all real, though I have changed names in order to protect their privacy. Nobody here fits any neat model that social scientists use to predict voting patterns and no political party has any intention of speaking to them or addressing their needs.
Nobody in this article votes, watches the news, or is engaged in civil society in any way. The people you will read about here don’t even constitute what might be described as an under class. They are Britain’s equivalent of India’s untouchables, a people that shoppers and commuters avoid and the media almost never reports on. Their lives and their sorrows are invisible to most of us, but strangely not too difficult for most people to imagine.
They are the people who inhabit austerity Britain’s town centres, underpasses, shop doorways, homeless hostels, and prisons. The people in this article are the most forgotten people in Britain. Destitution in Cardiff is somehow both everywhere and invisible.
Steven, a young man with chronic drug and gambling problems, ended up in a homeless hostel several years ago after his family evicted him from their home. They had been patient with him for many years but were finally pushed beyond their limits by his stealing and asked him to leave.
I worked with Steven for a couple of years as he gradually pulled his way back out of homelessness and into work, a rented flat, and a relationship. But power of gambling and cannabis was too strong for him and in my time working with him Steven relapsed, wrecking the stability he had created for himself.
He had an uncanny ability to cause himself new dramas just at the point old ones were subsiding. I suggested to him that this was on some level probably deliberate and he agreed; being in the ‘madness’ has a certain magical allure of its very own. I met lots of people like Steven who it would be easy to characterise as the architects of their own misery, and whilst there is more than a grain of truth to this, there have been far larger and predatory forces generating untold misery for their own ends.
In 2010 the Conservative Party scraped a quasi victory and with the help of the Liberal Democrats launched one of the most devastating economic assaults on poor people in Britain since the Poor Law Act of 1834. With their press outriders, the Tories demonised the supposedly workshy (most benefit claimants are in work) and gave Britain’s lower middle class and its more affluent bourgeois counterparts a convenient scapegoat for the economic woes unleashed by the world financial crisis. A profligate Labour Party that bought its way into power by giving the lazy and undeserving the wealth created by ‘hard working Britons’ was a refrain that echoed throughout the forthcoming decade.
I am certain that Britain’s street drinkers, addicts, and those with acute mental illness in the community weren’t actually meant to be the targets of any of what came next. Instead the imaginary single mother living in a four bedroomed detached house with five children by five dads was in the crosshairs.
Neither the Conservative or Labour parties wished to be associated with representing those considered to be in Britain’s underclass. This is just as well, because no matter their class position, the poorest people in Britain are clued up enough to realise that neither party has the slightest interest in helping them and so don’t vote for them.
The people who exist in homeless hostels and who drink in the streets aren’t part of the underclass, they exist in a chaos that defies easy class labels and descriptions. It is questionable whether they are included in the overall functioning of society at all. Certainly their problems elicit little sympathy (and it is hard to imagine public alcoholic drinking and drug use doing so).
No political party acknowledges their existence, has any interest in that existence or has the faintest idea about what to do about the growing problem of urban destitution. That isn’t to suggest that the people I mention in this article haven’t been affected by government policy. Far from it.
What happened to the community of street drinkers and addicts after 2010 was that bit by bit, the infrastructure that helped them to survive in one way or another was gradually whittled away. Austerity for them meant the slow decline of mental health services and social work, and in its place the much vaunted voluntarism of the Big Society.
When I saw Angharad, I thought she was dead. It was half six on a winter’s evening three years ago as I locked up at the drug and alcohol centre I had been working at in Riverside.
Within ten minutes walk there were three homeless hostels and, in more abundant times, the charity I worked for had been a source of food and support for the street drinkers and addicts in Riverside. Angharad, a seventeen-year-old girl in a parka coat and tracksuit, was slumped in the doorway of the building while two of her friends, older street regulars, were attempting to rouse her and get her back to the hostel.
After she collapsed on the pavement I administered chest compressions with the instructions of an incredible emergency operator, whilst preventing her friends, both drunk, from taking her away to drown in her own vomit or suffer a head injury. The ambulance arrived and as she was lifted onto a gurney, she suddenly came to, the cocktail of drink and street drugs wearing off. She began to protest but was convinced by the weary paramedics that she would need to go to hospital
My part in the drama came to an end and I made my way home through the freezing cold streets wondering precisely what would become of Angharad. The hostel she had been living in was an extremely dangerous place for a young woman, particularly one with addiction problems who was likely to be frequently intoxicated. The dedicated staff, I knew, were engaged in weekly and often fruitless attempts to keep vulnerable young women safe from predatory and violent men.
Austerity’s demise has been greatly over-reported, and for the most vulnerable it is still a very active policy. As a policy it had little other rationale or logic than to drive back social gains made in previous decades and to please Conservative voters, who, after the financial crisis of 2008, seemed to focus their ire on those they viewed as feckless.
Ideas of the undeserving poor have been a feature of public discourse in the British Isles since at least the Tudor era, and Victorian style moralising about self help and abstemiousness were given a new lease of life as the government’s media outriders sold the country a story. Programmes in the early austerity years like Super Scrimpers and How the Other Half Live explained that really, with a bit of effort and ingenuity the nation could tighten its belts and come through the financial crisis.
What followed was a decade of unrelenting social warfare through cuts to vital services and benefits. For people who come from vulnerable family backgrounds, the social workers, mental health nurses, youth workers, teaching assistants, librarians, and project workers are their lifelines.
The friendly word, the conversation, the cup of tea, the five minute chat to help calm down before doing something impulsive or dangerous, much of this is sneered at in the Tory press as do-gooding, but take it all away and what support is there? The answer is the support that kids like Angharad find on the streets.
I was fairly certain that Angharad’s “friends” were the people who had given her whatever had left her unconscious in the first place. It is a horrible knowing that haunts counsellors like myself that girls like Angharad are routinely raped on the streets and in hostels where they are meant to be safe, and that once my involvement with her was over, I was powerless to prevent anything that might happen to her.
I used to find Danny outside our offices in the morning when I opened up the building and switched off the security alarms. He would sleep rough under an old duvet and I would make a cup of tea and bring it out to him.
Danny’s life was comprised of three phases, a self described “naughty” childhood which was dominated by a terrifying ogre of a father who ruled with a belt, life in the army, plus a stint in Sierra Leone as a mercenary (his role there, he described as “shooting bad men”). And then prison, the streets, prison, the streets, and more prison.
Danny had periods of abstinence from alcohol, never more than a month. He was a hugely likeable character, though the last time I saw him homelessness and drink had clearly left him physically and mentally broken. I imagine he will die on the streets.
If this all sounds bleak and hopeless it’s because it is, though once every so often a tiny miracle occurs and a person who has known nothing but abuse, trauma, and addiction all their lives breaks the cycle. How does it happen? Almost invariably, it’s a team effort where social workers, housing officers, probation officers, drug and alcohol workers, police, community mental health services, and advocacy services pull together to support the individual as they attempt the seemingly impossible.
To give someone a shot at a new life is to help them create a framework for living they were never born with and nobody allowed them to acquire as they grew up. As that person tries and tries again and struggles and stumbles, falls and rises, there needs to be a team behind them.
If this sounds costly, rest assured that in comparative terms, society is getting a bargain. The Tories, able to see the cost of everything and the value of nothing, have cut such services back to the bone because in their thinking, helping people to change has no value, but punishing them because they can’t is laden with political capital.
Miracles could be a far more frequent occurrence, with major benefits for society at large. Behind every problem is a person and one who normally lives in pain but is as human, as fallible and as worthy of a future as the rest of us.