I first met Rob after a gig by my favourite comedian Stewart Lee at Chelmsford’s Civic Theatre back in 2011. Rob asked me for “50p for a cup of tea” which I was able to spare. Over subsequent years I saw him lurking in a sorrowful state on several occasions and would give him cigarettes or spare change. Sadly, this man, who was a rough sleeper, died a week ago from the horrendous tragedy of freezing to death on the streets. Yes, you read it right – he froze to death in the 21st century.
Regarding reporting of this terrible event, the BBC initially took the same response I did – implying fury and outrage at the preventable death of a young man. But then 2 days later, the BBC reneged on their outrage saying there was a shelter available not too far away from where Rob died that had spare space, and he could have stayed there.
Rob died outside of an Argos store that had shut down several months earlier, laying off a couple of dozen workers. This building is quite big – sufficient to house all of Chelmsford’s homeless. Yet the building was not requisitioned on the popular thoroughfare of Springfield Road by the Council, it has lain idle. So, the irony is, Rob froze to death in the doorway of a building that is not even in use, yet had been shuttered.
Regarding the so-called “shelter” that Rob ‘could have’ used, this is 23-24 George Street. It is about a 7 minute walk from where he died, and does not tolerate smoking inside, drink or drugs, that inevitably puts off many homeless, hence it is frequently running under full capacity. Furthermore, it is run by Christians who offer advice regarding benefits you can claim with the ultimate intention of getting you into work. But if it was the world of work that the homeless often despise due to various ‘mental health problems’ (as they are called) or other factors. In short, who would want to stay in a shelter that just moralises at you to get a job?
Don’t get me wrong, the Christians who run the shelter are motivated by good intentions. It is great they are there to offer help to those who don’t mind the nagging aspect to their care. And technically it is true that Rob would not have died that night if he had availed himself of such benign charity. But let’s face it, it is not an ideal situation. Run the risk of freezing to death or suffer patronising Christians when you have no faith is a perilous choice to make. Furthermore, Rob probably was staying out late to try and get more spare change from people coming out of nearby clubs.
The big problem which the BBC reportage has glossed over is that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of caring individuals, Christian or otherwise, to provide the necessary help. It should be a responsibility of the Council. Individuals are not duty-bound to provide care to the homeless, though it may tug on their heart-strings and is a noble act when they do. But because those in need often resent the kind of care being offered, it would be better if a Council offered a neutral form of support, i.e. simply providing shelter for those who through no fault of their own have become homeless. There could be leaflets regarding the claiming of benefits, but no mandatory interviews with Christian counsellors upon arrival. And the temporary accommodation provided must allow the individual homeless person or family to do whatever they want, as too the rest of us should expect in our homes – to smoke, drink, take drugs, if that is your poison.
3D printing can now knock up reasonable temporary accommodation in the course of a few hours. Why isn’t this technology being deployed to solve a pressing social problem?
Really this issue harks to the whole problem of private ownership over each and every building. Surely at least some buildings should be exempt from this notion. If allocated rationally, homelessness – a rising problem in all the ‘advanced’ countries – could be abolished overnight and deaths prevented. When humanity’s desire to solve problems encounters a problem with ‘objective circumstances’, then it is time to change those circumstances.
Chelmsford Council might argue that unhindered free accommodation would just encourage more homeless to come here. The image they are trying to create of the town centre – fashionable stores (that always seem to close down within 2 years) – is incompatible with the socialist cause. They would say that housing the homeless sends a negative advertisement to the rest of the country. But surely the real negative advertisement for a city is that people freeze to death within its jurisdiction. Do they really want to amend the road signs: “Welcome to Chelmsford: Good luck!” or would it better to have a rational policy regarding homelessness that is not governed by the law of value for money?