Imagine a world in which identity rested solely on your type of home. A world in which people were defined as bedsitters, flat sharers or one up one downers instead of a combination of complex intertwining factors like race, political beliefs, age, gender, sexuality or whether you prefer a korma or a vindaloo. This is a ridiculous idea which disregards the intricate reality of human existence, the never-ending process of identification, heck korma disciples and vindaloo warriors have even been known to live together, albeit often with fiery consequences.
Yet those who are without a home are not afforded the same luxury. Across the political spectrum they are described merely by what that they lack. In his book ‘Social Identity’ Richard Jenkins argues that some identities have a ‘master status’ which overrides people’s other less powerful affiliations and characteristics. This is true of the description ‘homeless’. Simply branding someone as homeless ignores fact that in London alone people without a home represent over 20 nationalities, or that around 1 in 12 homeless people in the UK have a degree or equivalent. It groups people with very different needs and aspirations under one ironic metaphorical roof.
So why then has the tag become so dominant? The answer is in the purpose it serves. The capitalist system is like a cold-hearted mafia boss. Loyalty and hard work are rewarded with higher pay and status yet those who mock its core principles are punished and made examples of. People without a home are the ultimate traitors, standing in complete contrast to the model good citizen who pays taxes, is on the property ladder and makes a pilgrimage to Ikea at least twice a year.
In her excellent book ‘Homelessness, Citizenship and Identity’ Kathleen Arnold explains that increasingly economic status has become an identity in its own right, just as much as race or gender. This is what we see when we read tabloid headlines crying foul of “scroungers”. If people can’t fend for themselves and improve their social situation they must be irrational and irresponsible, is how the message goes. You only need to look at the castigation of working-class Brexit voters by so called liberals or the recent campaign by the homeless charity Thames Reach, entitled; ‘Killing with Kindness’, which advises people that ‘giving spare change to people who beg could help to buy the drugs that kill them’, to realise that all sides a guilty of this.
The truth is, branding people with the ‘master status’ of being homeless, painting them as irrational and irresponsible and thus putting the blame for their situation at their door, is a tried and tested way to legitimise their hardship. For example, ‘Intentionality’ states that if a person intentionally becomes homeless they are not eligible for any housing assistance. This includes simply failing to pay rent on time. This begs the question; who in their right mind would intentionally become homeless?! Apparently certain people seek out the misery and hardship of a life on the streets. This narrative makes it far easier to argue individual action is at the root cause of homelessness rather than sky high rents, a broken social care system or underinvestment in mental health services.
I once spoke to a person living in a homeless shelter about how their life had improved since getting off the streets. I expected them to extol the virtues of having their own bed, or the meals the shelter provided or being able to watch Match of the Day on a Saturday night. Their answer surprised me. They were most enjoying having regular use of a mirror. Not because they were particularly vain but because they had been ignored so many times while rough sleeping that they began to believe they were a monster. Throughout history people billed as traitors have been ignored, eyes averted, don’t get involved. As people spend more and more on rent, wait longer for hospital appointments and pack themselves into bursting train carriages to go to jobs they don’t enjoy, they’d rather overlook the presence of people living on the streets. These individuals are a continual reminder of how society treats those who have fallen through the cracks, of what may happen if you stop conforming. But despite what you think, they are people too, with likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams. So maybe next time you walk past the person sitting on that same street corner on your route to work, stop and have a chat, their favourite curry might not be a bad place to start.