Google is lovingly creating a time-capsule of Britain’s homelessness crisis

Great work, everyone. Image: Google.

Images guide our historical memory. It’s not the Blitz we remember, but the picture of St Paul’s unharmed. It’s not 19th century Britain we recall, but photographs of stern-faced Victorians and impoverished street urchins. No one remembers the goals any more – but we can all picture Bobby Moore holding the World Cup in 1966. Forget history books, images tell the stories people really remember.

So what about us? What judgement will our grandchildren pass on our legacy, and which images will guide them?

Those of us living in Britain’s towns and cities see homelessness daily. We’ve watched with alarm at the spiraling numbers of rough sleepers slumped in doorways, outside tube stations and on park benches. The figures have almost lost their ability to shock. Since 2010, they record homelessness increasing over 169 per cent and rough sleeping by 98 per cent.

Our failure to tackle the issue will be remembered – because it’s being archived on a mass scale, entirely accidentally.

Today, everything leaves a digital trail. Data is hoovered up and monetised faster than you can say GDPR, and Google is the proud owner of the world’s largest mapping empire. Its network of image-capturing kit – mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles and even submarines – stitches together the world around us.

But as with all leaps in technology, it’s had some unforeseen consequences: unintentionally documenting the homelessness crisis with surprising intimacy.

The stirring images show Dickensian poverty colliding with our smart contemporary cities. EV charging points gleam next to torn sleeping bags. Tents are pitched on paving slabs alongside gutters of slushy snow. “Happy new year,” reads a cardboard sign held aloft by one rough sleeper as pedestrians walk by. Google has inadvertently created a time-capsule of homelessness, free and digitally accessible to all.

We now face a choice: let these images embarrass us, as future generations pass judgement on our inertia. Or seize on them as a call to action.


To end the homeless crisis we need to upturn our thinking. The Conservatives still believe that work sets us free – that employment prevents homelessness – but charities Crisis and Shelter argue this is false. One in three families are just one monthly pay check away from losing their homes, a study found this year. Shelter blame the Coalition’s housing benefit freeze from 2010 to 2015, despite the fact private rent, for a two-bedroom flat in London, have risen 34 per cent since 2011. As rents escalate and housing benefit remains frozen, Shelter argues working families are “hurtling towards homelessness”. It’s time we leave blaming working families for their poverty where it belongs, in the 1930s.

Last year’s harsh winter took the lives of 78 homeless people. This figure should make policymakers ashamed, but apparently doesn’t. The DWP’s botched rollout of Universal Credit is making things worse, accelerating foodbank use 13 per cent year-on-year and putting working families at risk. Amber Rudd, appointed Work and Pensions Secretary in November, is ploughing on with the policy regardless.

So what can be done? Labour’s approach centres housing. An extra 8,000 new homes are pledged for rough sleepers, alongside building 100,000 affordable homes a year to address the private rental crisis.

This plan is welcome, but incomplete. People are driven to sleep rough by a cocktail of factors, including structural and personal issues: unemployment, poverty, and lack of affordable housing; trauma, addiction, and the breakdown of relationships. Just as doctors must treat both cause and symptom of disease, we too need a multifaceted strategy.

Eradicating homelessness demands a ‘public health’ approach. We must go beyond the housing ministry to encompass the health, social care and employment authorities and mobilise them in the prevention of rough sleeping. It takes a village to raise a child, and it’ll take a whole government – not a single ministry – to end homelessness.

“How a society treats its most vulnerable is always the measure of its humanity,” wrote Mahatma Ghandi. How do we want to be remembered? A cold concrete doorway is not a bed. Rough sleeping should be banished from 21st century cities, and a public health strategy is how to get there. Let’s eradicate homelessness, or Google’s images will haunt us in the eyes of posterity.

All images taken from Google Streetview.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.