Frozen in Time

10/03/13 17:21

“Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless, starving wretch to lay him down and die.  Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets, at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.”

If you recognise that quote from Oliver Twist, but don’t think it has any bearing on your life or work, then you’re surely in the wrong profession.

I was down in Edinburgh, and as tea-time approached, I headed towards Waverley from the offices of the firm where I was completing some urban design work.  First, I saw a sheet of cardboard on the ground.  Then I noticed the young woman huddled in a blanket, with her feet drawn up towards her, in the doorway of a tenement on the edge of the New Town.  Her face was a study of inscrutability; she had switched off against the cold.  Passers-by barely registered as they hurried past.

This, remember, is one of Europe’s great cities.  Affluence is relative, but wealth is absolute.  Despite everything which has happened over the past five years, we live in a country which is still one of the richest in the world.  If the will was there, we could virtually eradicate homelessness and the need to beg for money.  The fact that we haven’t done so damns government, churches and charities: but most of all it challenges our moral courage and the good intentions we voice when we see homeless people.

I don’t care how the young woman landed in that tenement doorway in the snow – it’s none of my business, even if she’d wanted to tell me – but it’s an affront to our society that she felt she had no other option.  On reflection, she didn’t need cash, although on the level of human empathy, a couple of quid for a roll and a hot drink would make a huge difference on a winter’s evening.  Yet that would treat the symptoms, but not the disease.

Perhaps the young woman’s problems spiral from the housing shortage, which isn’t down to an absolute lack of buildings, but a result of economics.  Mortgages are too expensive, and there is a lack of starter homes and small flats.  As a result, more people have to rent privately, so rentals increase.  That increase in rental yields drives landlords to buy up more housing stock, so the problem worsens and more people look to social housing. 

However, although there are lots of large houses and executive flats lying empty, unsold for years due to their high cost, there aren’t enough housing association flats or council houses to go around.  More people end up homeless, and end up in temporary accommodation like B&B’s.  Those who fall off the end of that chain, end up sofa surfing or on the streets.  If they’re lucky, they may get a place in a night shelter.

Perhaps she was crouched in a doorway as a result of a drug habit.  Or mental illness, divorce, drink, unemployment, breakdown … It’s a measure of our civilisation that any of these personal tragedies could result in someone ending up without a roof over their head.  Rather than cash, she possibly needed help to quit her habit, to get clean and get away from the people who had dragged into this state, and help to get a roof back over her head.  Our society is wealthy enough to provide an umbrella for those who really need it.

Contrary to what the Tory Party claimed, there is such a thing as society.  We don’t have to provide huge “hand outs”, because putting a roof over everyone’s head isn’t a financial or economic issue - but a practical one.  The property industry is in huge surplus - not financially, but materially.  Drug rehabilitation projects, such as Calton Athletic, and community healthcare practices, need premises.  Think of all the unlet offices, empty flats and derelict buildings: a tiny proportion given over to bedrooms, kitchens, workshops, could provide for folk who’ve ended up on the street.  Some buildings could be adapted very simply, others could be renovated, incidentally creating work for the people they are designed to help.

When I reached Waverley and found a seat on a train heading northwards, I opened my book for the journey - a book about the life and work of Colin Ward.  Following Russian thinkers like Kropotkin and Herzen, Ward was a passionate believer in co-operativism and mutual aid.  He believed that politics should nurture small-scale initiatives like friendly societies, mutuals, credit unions and the like, which in turn would foster self-build housing, allotments, adventure playgrounds and other things which folk can do for themselves to improve their own lives.  Thus a huge range of modest projects would replace the tyranny of giant, centrally-planned policies which governments like to impose on the people who voted for them. 

The current government sees people like the young woman in St Stephen Street as a burden on society.  The mass media presses its telephoto lens into the face of human tragedy – only if that face belongs to celebrity.  To the hungry addict or abused teenager begging on its doorstep, it turns it back.  Collectively, we could help.  In fact, if architecture can’t help those who most need our help, then it has failed.  After reflecting on Colin Ward’s manifesto of gentle anarchism, I recalled one of my friends, whose email address includes the phrase, “compassionate fury”.  Rather than pity, shame or disgust, that is surely what we should feel when we see poverty and suffering on the streets of our cities.

As a parting shot, compassionate fury could also direct the activities of under-employed architects, and graduates who can’t find conventional jobs with architectural practices.  I challenge anyone who has set themselves up recently to provide community engagement, participation sessions and neighbourhood consultations, to demonstrate the social worth of their work when they consider the desperation which is manifest in Scottish cities.

Ah yes, reply the engagers, but homelessness is outwith our terms of reference.  We won’t get grants from the Scottish Government to help those who are homeless (therefore we won’t make any money ourselves!)  In fact, although we can’t admit it openly – if communities were encouraged to go down the Colin Ward route of self-help and mutual aid, there would be no need at all for the community engagement, participation sessions and neighbourhood consultations we provide – and all the effort and money spent on them could be redirected. 

Perhaps that would be no bad thing.  If we can’t help those who are in most desperate need of our help, then we will need to admit that nothing has improved since Dickens’ time, 150 years ago.

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