The Grenfell disaster should help us reconsider our indifference to homelessness


The fire is the Grenfell tower block is still burning more than 24 hours later. Dozens have been killed and hundreds left destitute because the ‘market’ decided it was worth the risk.

The outpouring of solidarity and charity shows that pretty much everyone in the country has imagined themselves in such a situation. There’s also rage and revulsion at the economic forces and social structures that the fire lays bare. Those Conservative Party defenders criticising the ‘politicisation’ of the disaster resemble Isis supporters demanding that no one hold it responsible for bombings and beheadings.

Then there’s the slow apocalypse of individual homelessness. Is it wrong to imagine the frustration of people already homeless upon seeing the attention this catastrophe has generated? No wonder destitute people from other parts of London have apparently been turning up at the disaster site looking for food and shelter. Who wouldn’t? In Kensington and Chelsea itself one out of every 29 people is homeless. Those displaced by the disaster might count themselves lucky that their council has not followed the example of neighbouring Westminster in its proposal to make feeding them illegal, or various other boroughs in fining people more than the price of a hotel room for sleeping rough. Everyone in London knows how easy it is to find oneself between flats, stretching the hospitality of friends and family to the point where a night in a park starts to seem like a more comfortable option. It’s fair to say that probably most of London’s population lives in conditions of mild to extreme housing insecurity. It’s a slow-burning, invisible conflagration.

A sudden loss of home like that experienced by the Grenfell residents must be traumatic almost beyond repair. We help others in such situations partly in the hope that if something similar were to happen to us our neighbours would look out for us and give us refuge. The fact that similar things are happening on a global scale might give us pause to reflect on the irony that so many British people, in the wake of the Brexit vote, immediately started looking abroad for other options. Doing so is never a bad idea but our history should teach us that our plight doesn’t make us a priority for resettlement.

Nobody lives a more precarious existence in London than council or former council tenants in areas of high demand. Those out on the streets in West London right now are exactly the kind of people being turfed out of the ‘Golden Postcodes’. There’s an irony in the use of the hashtag #IamLondon in response to terrorist attacks, for only a dwindling minority of locals can afford to live there. Thanks to the hard work of Boris Johnson and central government, the city is becoming almost medievally exclusive. When we rented out our flat in East London the prospective tenants mentioned to the letting agent that it was a shame we didn’t have a better view over the (council) block opposite. Don’t worry, he said, it’ll be gone soon, oblivious to the fact that there are no current plans to get rid of it and the hundreds of people who live there. There’s a deeper logic at work, a bizarre but serendipitous seismic anomaly that only brings down those buildings which ordinary people can afford to live in. As it happens, the company which developed our building and those on adjacent streets did so with the enthusiastic support of one Brandon Lewis, then Housing Minister and proud advocate of Letting The Market Decide. The use of cheap (and apparently inflammable) cladding to cover the Grenfell Tower obeys a similar logic: if you can’t push the poor out through legislation, purposeful neglect or repossession, disguise their very presence. It’s worth the risk.

Just up the road from our flat there’s a Tesco Express with an ATM outside, next to which one or other homeless person is permanently stationed. Talking to them is always a deeply enraging experience. Any of those we step over on the way to work may have been left on the streets by a fire or kicked out by a landlord who refused to carry out essential repairs. As we pass such people, it’s easy (and understandable) to blame the media for cultivating our indifference to their plight. Actually there are ways in which we’re complicit, as the political philosopher Louis CK explains in this clip:

It’s noticeable that those who claim that people begging make thousands of pounds a day never do so themselves. There’s also the sandwich response, those who insist on buying people begging for money food instead, as though becoming homeless were the result of individual failure, rather than the result of a crime on an enormous scale, a crime which goes by the name of the market but is actually much more recognisable as the highly profitable operations of a mafia-style cartel. Complicity also means voting for parties that say that mass homelessness and near-universal levels of housing precarity are an acceptable price to pay for the prosperity of very few, or accepting without question an ideology that says the insatiable appetites of the global ‘market’ must be appeased at all cost. Taking it for granted that the lives and homes of others are worth the risk, little more than plastic chips in a giant, members-only casino where the owners always win. We need an immediate mass movement to join those left out on the street, to confront power and argue that decent, safe and affordable housing is a basic human right, not a prize in a game of Russian roulette.

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