A few weeks ago now, I read a poem at a wonderful art event in Leeds. It was a long poem, written in response to some powerful photographs taken of people sleeping on the streets of Bristol by Steve Broadway.
Here is one of Steve’s images, and this is what he said about his piece;
“This year, I’ve spent more time talking to some of the rough sleepers in our city.
They’ve all got their stories…
The thing that has struck me most is their quiet dignity and their gentle friendliness.
I’ve never been threatened or verbally abused and they’re always happy to talk.
None of them likes the way they’re forced to live.
Some of them live in doorways.
Some live in small make-shift tents.
Some live in squats.
Some get the occasional respite of a night shelter.
Some are there because they lost their jobs and/or could no longer afford to pay their rent.
Some are there because of their own foolishness in the past.
Most are there due to circumstances beyond their control.
There are sad stories of broken relationships, broken homes… of being unable to cope.
There are sad stories of being verbally or physically abused by passers-by or rowdy drinkers.
There are sad stories of being robbed of what little money they had or having their tents slashed.
Many feel ashamed by their circumstances.
Many just want to be given another chance.
Many simply feel hopeless… utterly hopeless.
Most feel that society doesn’t care about them.
The sad reality is that, once you’re down, it’s very difficult to get back on your feet again”.
Too right Steve…
Then, last week, Michaela and I visited London. It was the first time she had been since 1989. We walked ourselves to the ground, and spent hours in the Tate, but one of the memories that will stay with me for ever was of all the people on the streets. How is it possible to walk past, unmoved? My lovely wife made sure that she held the hand of each one we stopped to talk to, but even then it felt utterly tokenistic to drop coins into their hands. Each encounter left us more impoverished, in a way that had nothing to do with money.
Around the same time, I visited my home town, a sleepy backwater in Nottinghamshire- the sort of place where people may be poor but this is not seen on the streets, until now. For the first time ever, I saw someone begging outside the local supermarket. A common sight elsewhere, but all the more shocking when seen there.
Steve’s portraits have been nagging at me since I saw them. As usual, when processing things like this, I turn to the keyboard and start to write… I try to find a way to respond to what I have seen that is honest and from within.
(Not one of Steve’s photographs. Think this was from The Guardian years ago)
My contention is this; in sociological terms, rough sleeping should not been seen as a singular problem, rather it should be understood as a litmus test for the health of our society. When the numbers of people rough sleeping rises, something is seriously wrong with society.
It should act then as a warning for the rest of us. Time to take a look at what we have become.
Estimations of the numbers of people rough sleeping are notoriously difficult for obvious reasons, but there is no doubt that the numbers are increasing dramatically.
(Another photo from an old Guardian article)
The individual stories these pictures tell are important. We should know their stories. Their stories should be told. But there is a danger in that too…
An iniquitous narrative has dominated our response to poverty in this country. It gained traction through politics, through social media, through rag-top newspapers, through all those ‘Benefits Street’ type of TV programmes. The narrative goes something like this;
Wealth and success are virtuous.
Poverty is shameful, and the proper reward of indolence and bad character.
Therefore, the benefits system should punish the poor. It should drive people away from state support by becoming so toxic and unyielding that no right minded person would want to continue receiving it.
The danger is then, that individual stories individualise the problem. In that dreadful neoliberal way, we ignore the collective- those complex societal reasons that cast people out onto park benches and drive them to food banks and advice centres. We site the locus of the problem in THEM, not in US.
This allows us to avoid asking questions that might actually make a difference;
What if greed is not good? What if all human interactions can NOT be summed up in the language of free-market economics?
What it rampant inequality destroys all of us?
What if poverty is a cancer that brutalises and ravages down the generations? Surely then the proper focus should be on alleviating poverty, not punishing the poor?
What if the real problem is brokenness in society? A break-down in our relating- an increased focus on one-step-removed-on-line-relating that strips flesh from our community and replaces it with silicon.
Our grandparents fought and died for a principle called universal benefits, seeking to banish the crippling shame of poverty forever. Each and every one is being dismantled. The only one left now is child benefit, and this will be gone soon.
There is a huge concern about the state of our health services- but remember that back in 1979, after a ten year enquiry into public health inequalities, the Black Report concluded that the issue of health was actually one of poverty. Everything else grew from there. Thatcher’s government buried the report under the thunder of war- the Falklands war.
In the face of all this, I am inadequate. My poetry, written from the comfort of my rural home, clangs like a hollow gong.
But after half a life time working in social work, it is all I have.
Tomorrow, I will post the poem…