0316 GMT February 21, 2019
My walk to work is not a long one — 15 minutes at a decent clip. Nor is it a particularly lovely one, as it largely involves trudging down Caledonian Road, a London high street so tatty, it features in the next series of The Crown as a stand-in for grim 70s Britain.
The TV crew didn’t even have to add dated shop signs or abandoned store fronts, since they all still come as standard, according to theguardian.com.
But the great advantage of my commute is that it’s above ground. On the tube, all you notice is how delayed your train is and how badly it smells. Overground, you watch your neighborhood changing around you, and the biggest change this past year has been the number of homeless people I pass on my way to work.
Along Regent’s Canal, which runs through the £3-billion King’s Cross development, in the course of which derelict buildings and shops were pushed out for Google HQ, luxury apartments and, yes, the Guardian offices, there is now a row of popup tents that weren’t there this time last year. King’s Cross train station has also had a fancy makeover, with a pretty piazza where photogenic stalls sell artisanal bread.
But the most noticeable new feature is the bank of mattresses that lies in front of it, where homeless people sit quietly, watching commuters drink £3 coffees. When my family drove past the station during the Christmas break, I watched two men approaching cars stopped at red lights to beg for change, something I hadn’t seen since I lived in the US. Up on Caledonian Road, public phone booths are filled by day with flattened cardboard boxes, waiting to be used as mattresses at night.
Before Christmas, the housing secretary, James Brokenshire, insisted that the fact the number of people sleeping rough has more than doubled since 2010 has nothing to do with Tory policies. Rather, he said, it was due to drug addiction, family breakdown and the number of foreigners. Brokenshire has since rowed back from this palpably ludicrous claim, admitting that Tories “need to ask ourselves some very hard questions”. Anyone who has seen this for themselves — which is to say, everyone who lives in a British city — could have told him that, because what has really changed is not just the number of homeless people, but who these homeless people are.
At Shelter from the Storm, my local shelter, the cofounder, Sheila Scott, told me last week that, when she started a decade ago, the people who stayed were town-square addicts and foreign itinerants. Now, half the inhabitants have regular jobs and three-quarters are British. Some leave every night at 2:00 a.m. to work at Amazon factories; some are Uber drivers who took out too many loans to buy their car to do their job. Most have been driven out of their properties by private landlords — and you have only to look at Caledonian Road to see the damage such landlords can do. Many of the shopkeepers have been driven out by what one described to me as ‘deliberately high rents’, their stores turned into expensive flats.
One private landlord, Andrew Panayi, owns 200 properties in the area, and even though he has been fined for renting substandard properties (one tenant called them ‘worse than prison cells’), he still keeps a tight grip on the street.
These landlords exploit the real problem, which is a lack of social housing and the decimation of social services. Scott said councils now send people directly to her, as they have nowhere else to put them. But they will soon have to send them to a new address: Shelter from the Storm is moving, because a property developer has bought the lot they currently stand on; like so many of the people the charity helps, it is being pushed out of the area.
Down the road is the Copenhagen Street food bank, founded last year by Joan Sampson, a single mother, after she noticed what she describes as ‘the desperate need’ in the area. That need has worsened since: More than 200 people are registered with the bank and the number is constantly rising. The day I stopped by, visitors were patiently queueing to pick up their seven items (10 if they have children). But these items have to last even longer now: A lack of funds means the food bank, once weekly, can open only every other week.
My walk to work is a march along the raggedy seam of Britain’s unspooling social fabric, another thread coming loose every day. But people such as Scott and Sampson are stepping in where the government has so roundly failed, trying — against enormous odds — to help people who could so easily be us. They shouldn’t have to do this, and yet they do. So while the government-caused need for it is heartbreaking, my neighbors’ response is heartening. And in 2019, that is something to cling to.
* Hadley Freeman is a Guardian columnist and features writer.