Thursday, 23 July 2009

Big Issue's not for the Rich and Famous

John Bird the Big Issue's Founder & Editor in Chief as he likes to be known appeared and co- hosted along with Craig Last, a former youth worker for the charity Centrepoint; what has been described as a compelling and thought-provoking TV documentary. Famous, Rich & Homeless was screened on 24 and 25 June. Its aim allegedly was to bring home the realities of homelessness into the homes of millions of viewers. Its promotional selling point was that ‘recession and repossession’ which may mean that homelessness is a frightening possibility for almost everyone.

No one today will argue against that. However as someone with vast and extensive first hand experience of the realities of being homeless; and more than once, I was horrified by the set piece plot of this reality programme aired on prime time Television.

Five famous volunteers were recruited and asked to experience the life of a homeless person on the streets of London for a few days (ten) during the winter of 2008. When I say famous, what I mean by that is household names drawn from the entertainment and media industry. The Marquess of Blandford, the One Show’s Hardeep Singh Kholi, journalist Rosie Boycott, former Coronation Street actor Bruce Jones and tennis commentator Annabel Croft all swapped their lavish privileged lifestyles, their fame and fortune for a world of soup runs and hostels. Manoeuvred throughout by a modern-day equivalent of Fagin (the villainous Jew in the novel by Charles Dickens) in the father-superior figure of –“I’ve been in prison, I’ve been homeless,” John Bird.

The five begin their ten day excursions being dropped off in different parts of London, where they spent their days and nights trying to survive on the streets. The physical and emotional toll supposedly, challenging their preconceptions and prejudices about homelessness and its causes. A far cry from what they are use too, the participants are said to have 10 homes and a palace between them. Famous, Rich & Homeless claimed that the minds of these well healed volunteers, would be focused on surviving their ordeal whilst at the same time contemplating the life of a homeless person.. The Times newspaper described this programme in such away:

‘If someone had set out to remake Cathy Come Home in this age of celebrity, this would be it.’

I have until now refrained from writing anything about this programme, instead I’ve opted to kept my powder dry pondering over this monodrama and stage presentation; trying to get my head around what if any-good, or more to the point, what harm this type of programme will do to those who may find themselves for one reason or another homeless, and there are many contributory components, as many as there are day's in a single year. I was frankly appalled that the situation of homelessness could be exploited by TV as the latest offering of reality entertainment to hit the small screen.

I’ve been, as I said, homeless in one form or another over a number of years, thirty in fact, when I stop to think about it. Oh, I do tell a lie, more than that if you include the experience that my parents had to go through, when they were young struggling to bring up a family, and had on one occasion to deal with the eviction from a home that was attached to employment, and also I will not forget the time that my brother and myself borrowed a ten shilling note from our mothers purse when she wasn’t looking, we got slung out for a couple of day’s. So the experience and threat of homelessness has somehow hung over me like a black cloud.

It may be somewhat strange to many that come on to my blog and read this, when I say that being homeless has never given me course to worry, and I will tell you why in a moment, but first let me just say that I’ve been a squatter, lived in some of the most rundown dilapidated, Dickensian hostels you could ever imagined, ever existed. I was a rough sleeper for over ten years, and I agree, this is nothing that should be bragged about or worn on ones sleeve like the boy scouts badge gained for bob-a-job week. But I never had a worry about being homeless when ever it happened in my life; maybe it was that I simply knew that the circumstance of being homeless was not entirely the fault of failure or imperfection of any individual, and because I’ve met some fascinating people who I’d never of otherwise had the pleasure of meeting, drinkers, dropouts, students, men and women from all different and varied walks of life, from all over the world.

That’s not to say that the picture that I’m painting here is a beautiful water colour of dispossessed humanity, far from it. Many struggle with more than just the absence of a bed or roof over there heads, mental illness, family relationships broken down, job’s lost or addictions and so on.

It’s not just one reason it’s many, it could be the young person who’s been living in care, no longer as a young adult has or enjoys the support of anyone who dose care. Young people leaving care are right to fear homelessness – 30% of all homeless people have been in the care system.

There’s no such thing as a road map to homelessness it happens, and it always happens. Frederick Engels wrote in 1872 in the Housing Question:

“The so-called housing shortage, which plays such a great role in the press nowadays, dose not consist in the fact that the working class generally lives in bad, overcrowded and unhealthy dwellings. This shortage is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it. In order to make an end of this housing shortage there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.”

When you join all the dots together, it comes down to one thing and one thing only, it is part and parcel of the society that we all live under. A society where housing like any other product or commodity is only provided at a cost and price to those able to pay, negating basic human need. Housing is probably the one basic need which is transferable into good emotional and mental health. It is, certainly pleasant and reassuring to be able to loosen up and relax among pleasant and agreeable surroundings. The fact remains that this felicitous life only applies to a small minority of the population such as the celebrity volunteers’ who have the means to buy or acquire beautiful homes. The rest, the vast majority of us suffer a housing problem of one sort or another, whether it be living on a sink council estate, in private rented accommodation or experiencing the fears and insecurities caused by trying to pay off the mortgage.

It follows that a society which not only fails but refuses to make available to its citizens the materials, know-how and labour power to adequately deal with the problems of providing decent housing for all, is a system of society that is rotten to it’s very magnetic core. No amount of campaigning or spotlighting, a position taken by reformists’ well-meaning or otherwise will change a thing. Forty years and more after the film Cathy Come Home, which gave birth to organisations and charities such as Shelter - has made very little if any difference, if the truth was told!


Chris H said...

An excellent post!

"to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class" - would that mean a system where housing was removed as a commodity? If so it sounds good to me!

Jim said...

Hi Chris,

First of all you have a wicked blog; I enjoy reading it; though we may have some differences on one or two things, but not major comrade!

"To abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class" - would that mean a system where housing was removed as a commodity? If so it sounds good to me!

It would mean the total abolition of all that is ‘commoditised’ in society. Some find this hard to understand, but I look at it this way. That the wage system is a form of rationing. It very much restricts a workers’ consumption (including housing himself) to what he needs, with many making do with the barest and bleakest to keep themselves; in efficient working order. It means that workers are deprived of the best that is available in food, clothing, housing entertainment, travel and the like. This is made all the tougher because there could, on the basis of modern technology, be plenty of the best for everyone. It is made even worse still because it’s the workers who produce all the wealth, the best that the rich enjoy.

So parents are right to teach their children to share their toys!

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