The problem of homelessness in modern Britain is so prevalent it became completely normalized. Mentions of the issue are usually met with a weak reaction – remarks such as ‘this cannot go on’ and other such insipid comments litter this arena of conversation and then the conversation shifts to other topics. This is why the explosive rise of people dwelling in tents in Cardiff City Centre making news both locally and on a national scale is an important and welcome change – this is a difficult conversation, but one we cannot postpone any longer.
But, while acknowledging that it is ultimately good that this conversation is finally happening, many responses to the issue are very emotional and impulsive. And if there is any topic that requires a tactful and considerate response, it is this one. Between asking for the tents to be torn down and repeatedly demanding the solutions that are already in place and do not seem to be working, there is a lot of nuance that needs to be considered.
While the official statistics are scarce, British organisation Shelter states that in 2018 at least 320,000 people in Britain (0.5% of population) were homeless, but the number is likely to be much higher. In most cases the statistics include only the rough-sleeping people who are registered as homeless and can formally apply for shelter. This group is usually the most vulnerable one as it often includes people with mental health or substance abuse problems, ex-convicts and people with disabilities, often unable to pay rent due to no stable source of income and no safety net to fall into. But there are also people who, while technically are not rough sleeping, have to resort to sofa-surfing and renting beds in commercial hostels and B&B’s. Quite often those are people escaping abusive partners or teenagers who have been thrown out by their parents. While they have a greater chance of escaping homelessness, a lot of them might end up rough-sleeping in the near future. Homeless people and those threatened by homelessness are a diverse group coming from various backgrounds, with various issues and stories. And no matter how much mind we are paying them, we are not paying enough.
However, there are groups willing to work hard and without prejudices to help people society has cast away. One of these groups, consisting of around 60 people, is based in Rhondda, one of the Cardiff’s more affluent districts. The group, utilising the power of the hashtag in the post-Twitter world, calls themselves #dontwalkby. Its members collect tents to donate them to homeless people in South Wales. They are responsible for the tents on Cardiff’s Queen Street – tents which some who occupy them claimed have saved their lives when snow fell on Wales for the second year in a row. A couple of aesthetically unpleasing tents in the middle of the city centre is not a high price for saving the human life.
This is where things get more complicated. While it should not be surprising (even though it is still disappointing) that there are some people that want homeless people off the main streets of Cardiff using the safety as an excuse, some people opposing the initiative are actually the ones who work with homeless people. The staff and volunteers working in the homeless shelters and hostels claim that there are empty beds available for the rough-sleeping people. Moreover, the management at one of the homeless shelters, The Huggard claims that people who decide to dwell in the tents might face problems would they decide to seek the more official support. Rough sleepers in Newport interviewed by BBC Wales seem to prove that claim. There are free beds at the homeless shelters and still there are people who decide to sleep on the streets rather than seek accommodation in them. When asked why, those interviewed mention that in shelters theft and drug abuse is a common occurrence; many mention that the wide availability of drugs could be too much of a temptation which stops them from seeking a bed in the shelter. Some mention valuable belongings (money, bank cards and IDs) being stolen. And while these claims are being refuted by the shelters’ staff and volunteers, it is not difficult to conclude that the members of constantly under-subsidized and understaffed organisations might find it difficult to ensure the safety of people staying in shelters.
However, even if the issues of drug abuse and theft were solved, the interviews seem to suggest the number of homeless people on the streets would not decrease substantially. A lot of shelters are run by religious organisations which might make LGBT+ people (a significant percentage of homeless population) either feel unwelcome or be downright discriminated, especially if they don’t belong to religious community maintaining the shelter. There is one more aspect of the living in shelter that is usually left unmentioned. No matter how secure the hostel is, it still robs its tenants of agency. The shared dormitory with bunk beds might give people a place to sleep for a night or two and there might be a meal waiting for them, but it is not a home. The tent, even if shared with someone, even if it is not offering the thermal comfort that the bed in the shelter is, offers something much more important – a sense of ownership, of belonging and of privacy.
There is a reason why tents on Queen Street sometimes have doormats placed before the entrance, even if this entrance is not really a door. It is because these tents are much more than just shelters from rain and snow; they are homes, the best homes available for homeless people. They are more than just tents – they are a testament of people having to resort to informal urbanism in the heart of the youngest Western European capital. And as long as homelessness is a real problem in Britain and as long as drastically more direct action (possibly inspired by the Finnish model) is not implemented, the tents will remain on the Queen Streets of all British cities, no matter how vocal the opposition against them is. Their number will probably grow until they reflect more realistically the enormity of the issue. Because while they might not be safe and warm, they are still better than no home.