If You Don’t Buy You Don’t Exist

To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub. Hamlet

If you don’t buy you don’t exist. Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

hat I don’t understand is why she can’t sleep in the Church hall or the church cafe next door? Instead she sleeps on a wooden bench behind the hollyhocks and rose bushes in all weathers. It is so beyond unsafe. The church garden is used by junkies, weed smokers, pooch owners from the smart villas who can’t be bothered to walk to the park.

The other evening there was torrential rain. I stopped by on my way home to see if the social workers had found her suitable accommodation. No such luck. She was stretched out on the bench under a broken brolly, rain spilling from her flimsy raincoat onto her canvas slip ons. That should not have been happening to a woman who is 65 with arthritis and other health issues.

She is still out there unprotected and exposed without access to shelter and a toilet. There are toilets in the church hall which is locked at night. If she needs to pee she will have to go behind the roses bushes or hollyhocks. If she cannot make the distance she will spend the night in urine soaked pants. At 65 her chances of surviving much longer in such wretched conditions are slim. The average life expectancy for homeless women in the UK is 43 years.

According to 2018 government statistics 14% of rough sleepers in England were women. 642 out of a total of 4712. Most of these were over 26. There is no information about older homeless women, those over 60 and near pension age. This is not good enough. Since the start of the pandemic local authorities have received more funds to help rough sleepers but who is benefiting from the extra largess? If older women do not appear in government reports as a group with specific needs then there may be far more than 642 sleeping rough in England today.

Providing accommodation for homeless youth gives the council a thumb’s up from the public and convinces voters the rough sleeping problem is being dealt with. What isn’t seen is that women of pension age have to bid for accommodation advertised on a site that includes homes for transfers and home seekers. Aye and here is the rub. The ‘rough sleeping’ problem persists precisely because the queues for social housing keep growing while the social housing stock shrinks! The shortage of so called ‘affordable’ housing, in particular one bedroom apartments, is recognised as hampering swift solutions to homelessness but what needs to be acknowledged is the link between the problem of social housing shortage and government subsidised schemes such as ‘Right to Buy’ and ‘Right to Acquire’.

Council tenants have the right to buy their rented homes -built with public funds- if they have saved enough for a deposit. Similarly housing association tenants have the right to ‘acquire’ their homes from their social landlord. ‘Acquire’ in this context means the same as ‘buy’. Both schemes allow tenants to buy their homes well below the market price. Once the property is purchased it can be sold at the market price. In transferring social housing from councils and housing associations to the market such transactions reduce the number of social vacancies for the most vulnerable: the elderly, disabled and low income families.

Sales under all Right to Buy schemes constituted 63% of all social housing sales in 2019- 20.

So the problem of housing rough sleepers is not only to do with ‘housing affordability’ but with the ‘right to buy/acquire’ schemes that exploit, parasitically, the social housing stock. The Right to Buy discounts as a percentage of market value rose sharply in the years following the Labour party’s defeat by the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition in 2010. Local authority discounts are now over 50%. These discounts help to keep the Conservatives in power even as rough sleepers are freezing on park benches. ¹

Today it was raining. Flash floods in London. Someone has provided plastic sheeting to the woman on the bench. While there are thousands who have the right to buy/acquire their homes and are exercising these rights she has to endure the severe pain of sleeping on a hard damp bench night after night after night…

¹ Today (30/07/2021) the Financial Times leads with the announcement that the Conservative party has received nearly £18 million from property sector donors since Johnson became PM in 2019. Business as usual despite the pandemic.

Citizen, Voter, Reader. Critic of social exclusion practices and unequal justice.