Turning Euston station into a temporary homelessness shelter is heartwarming – but it shouldn’t be necessary

Homelessness in London. Image: Getty.

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.

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Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.