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.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.