The London Magazine | February/March 2020
poem – simple and small. That mattered. The response to it mattered. The knowledge she could write about this had triggered a release.
After dusk there is an object darker than the London night sky looming over Aldrich Academy. Burnt into the landscape the sooted remains of Grenfell Tower: a monument to victims of poor housing. The names and faces of the 72 killed on a balmy June night in 2017 decorate the neighbourhood alongside memories and messages of solidarity. Grenfell is now a charred tomb wrapped in a grey veil with a light green heart and the words GRENFELL FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS – spare poetry that encapsulates the artistry and spirit of this divided area. Today Kensington and Chelsea is both the richest and most unequal borough in the country. The mean income is £158,000, the median £65,000. It is home to 10,705 families, 1,441 of which are homeless – 1 in 7 of the population. This is just one instance of a wider struggle for safe, affordable housing. The charity Shelter report that 1 out of every 200 people in England and Wales is homeless.
In the world’s sixth-richest economy we could give everyone a home. That’s what they do in Finland, with the policy of ‘Housing First’. Yet the UK doesn’t. A December 2019 Guardian headline reads ‘Homeless households in England rise by 23% in a year’. That month the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared: ‘it cannot be right in the twenty-first century that people are homeless or having to sleep on our streets.’ He and the Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev teamed up to make a ‘vow to end rough sleeping’ – an aim few believe achievable under current housing policies.
All of Europe is afflicted: the EU-wide network of housing organisations FEANTSA report every EU nation is in the midst of booming homelessness and housing crises bar Finland. A quarter of the planet today are homeless or live in slums. The scale of these tragedies makes them feel inevitable. We slump into denial, blame the victims of the housing crisis for their own misfortune, or shrug in numbed resignation that there’s nothing we can do. Is there a remedy for the pessimism we afford ourselves? How to reframe the stories we tell ourselves that justify this human rights crisis? And where are the wellsprings of hope we can draw on to motivate action? The relieved expressions you see at Crisis at Christmas are enough to get started with.