by Nikesh Sharma
I remember watching the film ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ as a teenager. You may have seen it too — Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a financially struggling salesman, alongside his real-life son, Jaden Smith. Although the broad details of the movie are blurred in my memory, there is a one-minute scene which I recall vividly.
Chris Gardner and his son have become homeless. Unable to find anywhere to stay one night, Gardner, in a tired black suit and carrying a satchel, a suitcase and the machine he sells for his day job, convinces his son they have found a cave to spend the night. Only the cave isn’t a hidden haven to rest and recuperate. It is a men’s bathroom cubicle. In a San Francisco train station. As father and son lay down on layers of paper towels, the anguish in Will Smith’s face turns to fear when there is banging on the door. The only security he has is a rattling lock and his foot against the door.
The heart-breaking thing? This is not just a dramatic and intensely moving scene in a Hollywood movie. There are thousands of rough sleepers, and hundreds of thousands of homeless people, in the UK alone (1), many of whom face a basic lack of safety and security. More than one in three people sleeping on the street have been deliberately hit or kicked. Homeless people are over nine times more likely to take their own life than the general population (2). Homeless people die, on average, 17 years earlier than those living in proper housing (3).
The incomprehensible thing? Homelessness is not an inevitable part of living in our modern society. Whilst we have yet to see a coherent and successful strategy to eliminate homelessness at a national level, there are examples of individual cities reducing, and even ending, homelessness. For example, the Finnish capital, Helsinki, has pursued a Housing First policy (an approach based on the idea that instead of incrementally moving a homeless person through different ‘levels’ of housing, their first need is to obtain stable housing without preconditions), making Finland the only country in the EU where homelessness is falling (3).
And whilst Covid-19 has been devastating for so many people around the world, in relation to tackling homelessness, there is a lot to take heart from. When the UK government came out with a very clear “stay at home” message, around 5,400 rough sleepers were moved into hotels, student accommodation, self-contained units and flats. What does this show, from my perspective as a lay member of the public? That it is possible to end rough sleeping and ultimately homelessness. This time it may have been driven by a need for people to self-isolate, and it may have only been temporary, but with a little political will it almost happened (at neck-breaking speed for good measure). And although the government has vowed to make 3,300 homes available within 12 months to prevent rough sleepers housed in pandemic accommodation in England returning to the streets, many details are still to be confirmed.
As preparations are made to move the country out of lockdown, we know life will not go back to the way it was. But with all the frustrating aspects of the post-covid world we will have to adapt to, why miss an open goal by not taking all of the incredible positive changes we’ve seen in our lives over the past two months? People reconnecting with family and community — reduced levels of air pollution — lowered carbon emissions — getting people who are rough sleeping out of the streets and public bathroom cubicles into safe and secure accommodation.
We see homelessness around us all the time. Instead of them asking us for “change, please?”, maybe we should be the ones demanding “change, please” as we rebuild our world post Covid-19.