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.