I was clearing out some old paperwork this week at the West London Mission and I found some fascinating old newspaper clippings relating to homelessness.
One clipping particularly struck me. It was from The Sun, March 1990. It starts:
IT’s time we stopped feeling guilty about the plight of dossers sleeping rough on our streets.
Professional weepers claim there are 73,000 homeless in London alone.
Their cries of “shame” are loud enough to reach Buckingham Palace and suck Prince Edward into the cause.
It goes on:
The truth is, most dossers are on the streets through CHOICE.
Some are obviously not capable of looking after themselves. Those need all the care that our hospitals can provide.
But spare us this barrage of emotional blackmail from groups driven by POLITICAL motives.
There are far bigger causes to champion in this world.
It is interesting that 1990 was a time when the numbers of homeless people on the streets had dramatically risen and it was becoming an increasingly high profile issue.
I remember it well because I left school in 1990 and got a cleaning job which meant being on The Strand in central London by 7.00am every morning. The extent of the rough sleeping at that time was truly shocking – with 3-4 people sleeping under almost every doorway. Villiers Street, which runs down from The Strand to the Embankment, was like a homeless village with countless people huddled together under cardboard. It had a massive impact on me.
Although The Sun peddled such harsh and judgmental views, the political pressure created by homelessness was too much for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government to ignore. The sight of so many rough sleepers, many of them very young, around Whitehall and Westminster did produce policy change.
The Rough Sleeper’s Initiative was launched later in 1990 and allocated £350m over three years to reduce homelessness. It was the subject of my dissertation at University and in 1993 I started work in a direct-access hostel for homeless young people that it helped fund.
Warning from history
In one way, this editorial is an illustration of how things have improved. Only this week, The Evening Standard (another paper which used to regularly called homeless people ‘dossers’) launched a front page campaign to support one of my former employers, Centrepoint. There is definitely improved understanding and more humane responses to homeless people.
But this editorial is also a warning from history. It shows how recently people with chronic needs, affected by trauma and poverty were dismissed contemptuously by the UK’s most popular newspaper.
Over the years, I have heard countless stories from homeless people about being threatened, kicked and urinated on. And it is spiteful views like the ones in this article which provide fuel, and some warped justification, for these kinds of inhumane behaviours.
Reading it today makes me feel proud of my predecessors in this work, dismissed as ‘professional weepers’, who DID stand up for the vulnerable and made their voice heard at a time when this issue was far less fashionable.
Today it is other vulnerable groups, such as refugees, who are often the target of tabloid contempt. We should never underestimate the toxic nature of ignorant forms of journalism which make sweeping statements about whole groups of vulnerable people and mock those who show concern.