Many years ago back in the early 1980s, I lived in New York. One of the many novelties that I was exposed to during those three and half years was the persistent evidence of homelessness. At that time tramps and homeless people weren’t particularly visible in the UK, even in London.
In Manhattan, by contrast, they were a ubiquitous sight from Times Square down to the Lower East Side. In the winters you saw them lying in heaps over the warm air vents by the subways in the freezing winters which they always sought out, curled up under cardboard or piles of blankets and sleeping bags, or warming their hands around trashcan fires outside Bowery flophouses, looking like extras from the disaster movie Escape from New York, which came out around this time.
In the summer you would see them pushing shopping carts filled with possessions or carrying bundles on their backs as if they were about to embark on a long journey. Most of them were men, but there were also a number of women who achieved the folkloric status of ‘bag ladies’.
Many of them were clearly mentally-ill, and they were on the street as the result of Ronald Reagan’s ‘community care’ program, which released quotas of mental patients into the streets where there was no community and no care. You regularly encountered them screaming incomprehensibly at traffic or passersby or haunting the pavements like ghosts, their madness and despair a disorientating counterpoint to the daily ebb and flow of the richest city in the world.
That was the dawn of the neo-liberal era, of Gordon Gekko’s morals and Ronald Reagan’s ‘trickle-down’ economics, and what I saw was only the beginning of something much worse. Within a year of returning to the UK in 1983, I was reading about fullscale cardboard cities in my former stamping ground in the Lower East Side, most of whose inhabitants were Hispanics driven further and further east by gentrification.
By that time, homelessness had begun to achieve a similar level of visibility in the mother country. Except that now, instead of the occasional middle-aged or elderly tramp, you became accustomed to seeing even young people begging, sitting all day under a strip of blanket with a whippet lying glumly beside them.
None of this was accidental. In both countries the increase in homelessness was the result of decisions and economic policies taken by governments, in which unemployment was accompanied by the destruction of social programs, a reduction in social housing and housing subsidies, and/or rising rents. In London, thousands of council and private houses were left empty, in some cases for years. In Manhattan, rents became so high that one friend told me how he answered an advert for a studio apartment to rent, which turned out to be a cupboard.
Today, nearly three decades later, homelessness continues to constitute an essential hallmark of the neo-liberal economic order, and one of the most disgraceful and abhorrent manifestations of the amoral con-trick we now call ‘austerity.’ In the UK the numbers of rough sleepers have risen by 37 percent since the coalition came to power, an increase that is due in part to government cuts in benefits and housing subsidies. In the US, the 2008/9 crisis has resulted in a proliferation of tent cities across the country.
Once again, as in the 80s, this phenomenon is a product of policy. But unlike the 80s, homelessness is no longer simply treated with indifference, but has become the object of explicitly persecutory policies. In the US ‘ tent cities’ are routinely demolished. In many parts of the country the homeless are liable to be arrested for ‘aggressive panhandling’ or disorderly conduct, or simply for living in improvised shelters.
In the UK, the police have confiscated sleeping bags and food parcels from rough sleepers. The reasons for such behavior are usually the same; that beggars and homeless people are a nuisance; that their presence is unsightly and produces a ‘negative impact’ on the surrounding area, as police described homeless people in Ilford last year. And now a block of flats in Southwalk has taken the drastic step of installing metal studs outside its main doorway to stop people sleeping there:
So far no one seems to know exactly who installed these spikes, but whoever it was ought to be congratulated on artistic grounds, if nothing else. Because what they have done, however inadvertently, is produce a haunting symbol of the institutionalized amorality and social cruelty that defines our era, and a visual statement that Banksy would struggle to equal, and which is at least worthy of an honourable mention for the Turner Prize.
On one level, as so much twitter outrage has pointed out, these spikes symbolize the transformation of the homeless into a form of vermin. But their artistic resonance goes further than that. These spikes beautifully encapsulate the essential concerns of a society that has abandoned any pretence of social justice, fairness and equality, even to the point of refusing to ensure what ought to be the essential component of any civilized society – a home for all its citizens.
Today London has become a speculator’s dream, a millionaire’s playground where house prices are rising beyond the reach of all but the middle and upper classes, where property can be bought and left empty simply to make its owners richer, while people on benefits have to pay ‘bedroom taxes’ or lose their homes.
Of course a society like this doesn’t like to be reminded of the consequences of its callousness and inhumanity by actually having to look at the ‘unsightly’ people in the streets or outside the doorways of luxury flats.
Like the cast of Made In Chelsea, its more well-heeled residents want to go on being cool and living the lifestyle that their income entitles them to. And its cheeky chappie mayor wants to keep on bringing in more millionaires into the city, because that’s what makes us all richer.
Given such priorities, it’s only logical that the homeless must be moved on and swept out of sight, and relentlessly persecuted. And it’s obvious that the brilliant satirist who installed those spikes intended them as a form of social protest, in a powerful attempt to rouse the national conscience regarding the problem of homelessness. That these spikes have now been installed outside the Labour Party hq – once again, it seems, without anyone’s knowledge – is a tribute to the biting satirical imagination of their creator.
So rather than criticism, he/she deserves congratulation for tackling this problem head on, and for proving, despite assertions to the contrary, that art can still be political after all, and can still contain the power to shock us out of our complacency.