Network Rail (NR) announced last week that Euston Station in central London is to be retooled on Christmas Day as a soup kitchen for the homeless. On Christmas Day, 30 volunteers who work for NR will team up with charities St.Mungo’s and Streets Kitchen to serve food to 200 “specially invited guests” inside the station, which usually attracts a large number of rough sleepers throughout the year.
It’s a heartwarming initiative. Winter is difficult for the homeless: dropping temperatures make spending long stretches of time in the freezing cold even more unbearable, and festive periods can be intensely lonely if you’ve got nowhere to go. On top of that, even the most Grinch-like person might find it difficult to argue against providing temporary solace for a group that’s pushed into the shadows for the rest of the year. Perhaps Christmas – when public transport in London is mostly shut and people are generally in a giving mood – is the only time of year when this kind of event could really happen.
Homeless people have always had a complex relationship with urban environments. They tend to congregate in cities, where there is more shelter in cities, and more people willing to spare a little bit of loose change; but they are also far more isolating and impersonal. London’s particular kind of urban sprawl, coupled with the transience of much of the population, creates even greater obstacles. Figures from housing charity Shelter recently revealed revealed that 1 in every 200 people in the UK is now homeless, a number that’s increased due to a lack of affordable homes and the effects of austerity. Of the 20 worst affected authorities, 18 are in London.
As London grows faces both unprecedented population growth and the financial pressures that accompany it, it’s worth reconsidering what we can really consider a public space, given that increasing numbers of the population seem to be living in them. A 2016 investigation by the Guardian found that much of what appeared to be public space in London was actually at least partially privately-owned, often due to the rising costs of maintenance that local councils can’t take on. In 2016, the British government passed a bill to create Public Space Protection Orders, which criminalise behaviours associated with homelessness such as begging.
But public spaces can’t be truly public if they’re open only to those who are passing through: those spaces are where the majority of the homeless negotiate the boundaries of their existence in order to survive. Under these conditions, it seems as though the brunt of actually providing for populations in need falls onto initiatives like Euston’s. But this event – and similar ones run by churches, charities and third sector organisations – fills a gap that a government shouldn’t be creating.
One of the obvious side effects of homelessness is that those affected get pushed into the shadows of society, even though public spaces being the domain of their lives, because they’re the sites of interaction, negotiation and often, safety. As Antonio Tosi has highlighted, the ‘control’ of public spaces – such as through the British government’s Public Space Protection orders – serves to re-frame how homelessness is construed. By positioning it as an issue of social disorder and disruption, the government and its enforcers “subtracts the question of homelessness from public policies”, and shifts blame away from the legislation that it, itself, creates and implements. In doing so, it moves the responsibility to improve conditions onto organisations like St.Mungo’s, Shelter, and now, Network Rail – without ever acknowledging how many of the factors that led people into homelessness are directly created by the Tory government.
Of course, the Tories aren’t solely responsible. Many academics and writers in urbanist thought, particularly those at the intersection of class and the urban environment, have long since highlighted that the way cities are designed often ends up criminalising homelessness, whether intentionally or not. There are some obvious examples, like the ‘anti-homeless’ spikes you can see in many places –including, ironically, Euston – that are designed to stop people setting up sleeping bags; or that robot in San Francisco which made headlines after being deployed to deter homeless people from resting outside an animal shelter. There’s even a whole school of architecture – ‘hostile architecture’ – devoted to creating buildings and features of city life that are innocuous enough to seem like a quirk of the city (armrests on benches in parks, say), but have the side effects of marginalising homeless populations further.
Running a soup kitchen in public stations should become more commonplace: there’s a good argument to be made for repurposing public spaces, and not just around the festive season, given that there are so many empty buildings and houses around London. But the government should be held responsible for the damage it causes, nonetheless.