“The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you come out of the opera?” – politics and rough sleeping


I left school in 1990 and got a job as a cleaner in central London. This involved being on the Strand, by Charing Cross Station, at 7.00am. 

The extent of the rough sleeping at that time was truly incredible. There were 3-4 people sleeping under almost every doorway. Walking down a road like Villiers Street, which runs down to the Embankment, felt like going through a homeless village.  For an 18 year old from the suburbs, it was both shocking and scary.

I later went onto study Social Work at Hull University, and volunteered each week at The Hull Homeless and Rootless Project. I wrote my dissertation on the Government’s Rough Sleeper’s Initiative, the first major policy initiative focused on addressing street homelessness. 

After graduation I worked in a 140-bed homeless hostel in Hackney and then went to the charity Centrepoint to manage emergency hostels for young homeless people in Soho.  Today it is my privilege to be Director of Social Work for West London Mission.

So I have engaged with this issue primarily from a practical perspective. But, I have always been interested in the political and theological issues that are connected up with homelessness.

An icon of poverty

The image of a rough sleeper is powerful and moving.   It often creates strong feelings of distress, anger, sympathy and bewilderment.  Homelessness captures something raw and fundamental about social breakdown – this is why the numbers of rough sleepers are a kind of social barometer, an indicator of wider levels of poverty and exclusion.

The rough sleeper could be described as an icon of poverty: because of the powerful way it brings together political failure and personal tragedy.

Highly political

Rough sleeping is undoubtedly highly political.  Back in the late 1980s, the Tory minister, Sir George Young reputedly said:

‘The homeless?  Aren’t they the people you step over when you came out of the opera?’

But the scale of rough sleeping in that era could not be ignored – it’s important to remember that the first Rough Sleeper Initiative was started by Margaret Thatcher’s government because of the pressure created by the sheer numbers sleeping rough around Westminster and Whitehall.  For the many critics of the government, it was an easy indicator to point to about the social outcomes of Thatcherism.

But the problem did not go away and 7 years later, Tony Blair established a Social Exclusion Unit when he became PM with one of the key targets being to cut rough sleeping by two-thirds. Then when he became Mayor, Boris Johnson pledged to eliminate rough sleeping completely by 2012. Officially, Blair was successful in reaching this target; Johnson did not get anywhere near. Despite new initiatives, the numbers sleeping rough has steadily increased year on year since 2010.

In recent days, there has been a furore surrounding Hackney council’s initiative to tackle rough sleeping which involves fining homeless people up to a £1000. An online petition against the initiative gathered over 80,000 signatories and just last week the council backed down from their proposals.

Material or relational?

3 Faces of Poverty

The issues of material poverty and a poverty of relationships are at the core of homelessness – and politics cannot be divorced from either.

The diagram on the right is adapted from Jim Wallis’ analysis in Faith Works (SPCK 2002). I have not positioned or coloured these two issues by chance. It’s because of the political significance of how we view these issues.

Commentators and think tanks on the right of centre – such as the Centre for Social Justice set up by Iain Duncan Smith – place a strong emphasis on family breakdown as a cause of poverty.

Left of centre organisations, such as Church Action on Poverty, tend to focus is on material poverty, such as benefits and financial inequality.

Of course one the relationship between these two forms of poverty is dynamic – relationship breakdown creates material poverty. And we know that material poverty and financial insecurity worries are one of the key causes of relationship breakdown.  But which aspect is emphasized is strongly linked to political perspective.

Material poverty is easier to directly blame on the government – on the structures of society which create social injustice. Whereas relationship breakdown is more the realm of individual decisions and personal responsibility.  Its far more challenging to speak out about and far harder to address…

This is an excerpt from a lecture, which can be read in full here: ‘Homelessness and the three faces of poverty’.

9 thoughts on ““The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you come out of the opera?” – politics and rough sleeping”

  1. I think what you say here Jon is so truthful and to the point. I think we also need to focus on the poverty of self when talking about homelessness and rough sleepers. When I was homeless that sense of loss of self, or as I say today “my spiritual loss” was so hard for me to understand and relate to. I don’t talk of Christianity here Jon, I talk of my relationship with God and Jesus. It felt like I was so alone and empty. My soul, my inner self had gone and left me with just physical pain and the feeling of death would be the only escape from the hell I lived in and a way to return to the God who had once given me life all them years before my addiction and homelessness. It was not so much as looking for materialistic values in my life. I was looking for the peace the truth within me. This could only be given by God and Jesus as they showed me the value of self of the truth within me. There was no quick fix’s or time to think about “poor little me” For me to learn the value of self will take forever I think. In nature I find life, love and friendship with myself. The true gifts and teachings of God and Jesus all for free. To teach a person and show them the beauty self is maybe a way forward in helping homeless and rough sleepers a way out of the hell they live in.


  2. This is a great article and Chris Ward’s comment should be published in your most viewed piece on Bono and karma (and the sense of self). And by the way, I know I’m awfully late to the debate but in simply agreeing with Bono’s definition of karma you come across as rather uninformed, at least from a Buddhist perspective. Karma is not an implacable cosmic retribution system, that make it awfully like God. The Buddha describes it as intentional action: i.e. any deed you perform will affect your (non-)self and bear fruit, either for your own good or ill, including possible re-birth. It’s not that different from the Christian concept of judgement, although no external agency is involved… and grace does not obliterate judgement in the sense you seem to allow.


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