Homelessness in Brum


(Jon) #1

I go through the city centre pretty much every day, and over the last year or two, it seems to me that homelessness is getting worse. In particular, the streets around New Street Station and the road area adjacent to John Bright Street have a lot of rough sleeping, often during the day when it’s safer. I surmise this is the ‘trickle down’ of austerity policy - it takes a number of years from the full appalling effect to be felt and seen.

I’ve been kicking some thoughts around in my head about this, mainly about how each privileged (and housed) individual is powerless - or certainly feels powerless - to act against the system that creates these ill-effects. We’re a wealthy nation, and yet people mostly walk past the abomination of homelessness, either because they don’t want to do anything about it, or don’t know how to.

I have flitted from one side to the other on the question of whether one should give money. I have a friend who used to do homeless food “outreach” with his church, and his advice was always “no”. And yet, when I explain this pampered middle-class advice to the umpteenth homeless person who just wants to get a hostel room for the night, they walk off angrily, retorting that “we’re not all smack-heads, you know”.

So, I drift between buying someone a coffee, or a sandwich - they’re usually sick of sandwiches - or risking it and giving some money. I feel frustrated that the burden of helping lands on charitably-minded people, with most people rushing past, never having dug into the wallet pocket of their expensive suits. I’m annoyed, also, that whilst giving anything is a nice gesture, it’s largely meaningless - homeless folks don’t just need food to eat, or a room for one night only. They need permanent shelter, assistance from trained support workers, and a lot of extended mental health or addiction counselling. I’d probably need to pull £20K minimum out of my back pocket to have a reasonable hope of making a permanent difference to just one person.

To further complicate matters, I’ve been approached by (and have also heard of) non-homeless people begging for money, under a variety of pretexts. Usually it’s their car/bike having allegedly been stolen, or they’ll buy you something on their debit card which has £3 on it in return for the same cash amount (card is probably nicked), etc. So, if I complain that there are not enough people who will help the homeless, there’s some really nasty people out there giving folks a good reason to walk on by: we don’t even know that people asking for money are genuinely needy.


I’ve also been pondering whether any of this blight can be alleviated with technology. I know what you’re thinking: “it’s the system, stupid”, and yes, I agree. But if that is presently an unmoveable object, perhaps one just has to work around it (at least in the short term). I haven’t done much research into the below (and I have had several people pour cold water on them) but, food for thought and idle discussion? I also recognise the ethical problems inherent in letting the council (or London govt) off their moral responsibilities (and transferring them unevenly to charity).

My first idea is an donation point in a highly visible place like Victoria Square (which of course would require council permission). It’d have a contactless payment gizmo on it, and people could use a touch-screen to point to a number of preset donation amounts. Monies would go to a local hostel, who can take one homeless person for ~£12 per night. The thing would cost around £300ish (Raspberry Pi, card sensor, internet dongle, rudimentary screen, and the lion’s share of the cost on a reinforced container unit). The box would feature lots of marketing material. It’d use a PayPal/Stripe API.

I think there are some coin donation boxes in the shopping area of New Street, but does anyone use them? I’m hoping that the electronic nature (and high visibility) of my idea would draw attention to it, and make donating a novelty. But, of course, I have no idea if people would donate. I’ve no idea either if the council would flatly reject the idea out of hand.

Another idea, which is much less fleshed out, is a voucher system for hostels. They may already have something of this kind, but perhaps people who would normally give money would prefer to buy these vouchers instead. They might be sold in newsagents or in Indie Birmingham cafes etc. Now, the risk here is that vouchers just become another trading mechanism for bad drugs, but to my mind, they might still be better (safer) than money.

Right, that’s a brain dump, see if you can make sense of it. I’d be interested in any responses on this wide theme.


(Andy Wootton) #2

From what I’ve heard, the problem has got a lot worse because cuts in central government funding have caused facilities to close. I know people in Local Government who are being forced to make horrible choices to save money. Do you close the women’s shelter, the disabled bus service, the homeless hostel or sack the council staff who organise them and risk giving a few more nervous breakdowns?

My daughter built a shelter when studying architecture. Ever since, I’ve wondered if there could be a system to provide weatherproof insulated ‘pods’ that could be packed away. Many homeless people don’t seem able to cope mentally with the chaos of the hostels and prefer to find their own space so they won’t be attacked in their sleep. There would obviously need to be safe places they could go at night and places to store the pods when not in use. It might be possible to use it to provide a home address so they could apply for benefits.

Late thought: I’ve noticed many homeless people have phones. I wonder how they use them. I’ve said in the last couple of days that Brum should do what it’s better at. Birmingham industrialists have a fine tradition of helping less fortunate members of society by improving housing conditions, water and sanitation. Where do the homeless go for a shower or to wash their clothes? A friend used to help out at Christmas, somewhere people were given their annual hair cut and offered new clothes. She said it gave them a huge boost in self-respect.


(Richard Cunningham) #3

It didn’t used to be like this, and unemployment is still low. Homelessness in Leamington is noticeably higher in recent years too. The change is down to government policy. From what I can tell, for TV programmes etc. is that the amount of social housing is way below the demand. Many people need social housing, and have to pay for it too, because commercial landlords won’t let to people on benefits in most cases. In terms of priorities, single people (i.e. without dependants) are prioritised lowest so can’t get a house of their own. Perhaps only shared hostels, but if they leave, there no alternative offered, since they would be ‘intentionally homeless’.

Many charities spend a decent amount on fund-raising. Shelter for instance spends 21% on fundraising. I guess if you could raise money in a cheaper way, that’d help. I think charities want you to donate a regular amount via direct debit, since that is the most efficient and predicable for them (though they seem to want send you a load of printed stuff every month of so, which must cost them).

However, there is one really efficient way to raise money and that’s through taxation. So, it would be really a lot better if the government solved this. Also, I suspect if charities started to solve the problem, they’d make further cuts.

I’m not sure what the solution is (other than a change of government, to one that’ll fix it). Seems like the, so called, “sharing economy” ideas, haven’t been tried yet in this sector, i.e. people offering up spare rooms, empty hotel rooms (e.g. unbooked still at 11pm), left over food (supermarkets, cafes, event venues). So maybe that would be a way to go.


(Marc Cooper) #4

Money is debt. It’s surprising how many folk don’t know this, but there it is. Money is created by commercial banks making loans. Most folk are ill informed about this, so the Bank of England issued a paper on it. People still don’t believe it.

If no-one is in debt, then there’s no money. So “austerity” – with the purpose of reducing national debt – in a time of economic decline (see 2008) is, at best, reckless, but mostly it’s ideology being violently administered.

Of course, this policy of “austerity” has been spectacularly unsuccessful. People don’t seem to believe that either.

However, what this government has engineered is even worse. And it looks like we’re about to suffer the consequences. See this by Graeber about public vs private debt. 2008 is about to happen all over again \o/

So, while I’m 100% behind what Jon says – and I thank him for a passionate, caring and illuminating post – I’m not inclined to try to fix the problem because it is systemic and done with precise intent. For change to happen, we have to have the political will to change the system. Until then, all bets are off.

It’s at this point I’m going to mention Aaron Swartz, who, I believe, had this all worked out and likely would have disrupted US politics for the betterment of all. Be Aaron Swartz.


(Jon) #5

Thanks all for the thoughts, I’ll reply to them as I can.

Yep, pretty sure that’s it. Whilst that’s enough to make any reasonable person angry, my psychological strategy is to ignore the deliberate nature of the policy and consider it “a law of nature” whilst there are still people who need not to sleep in doorways.

I’ve wondered if giving out sleeping bags, tents or hammocks would be workable, in the same sort of way. It doesn’t feel like enough, but perhaps it is better than nothing.

There’s been some great projects worldwide, often from private individuals who are frustrated at the lack of “official” provision. Here’s a homeless shower van, and here’s a homeless laundry service. I like the idea, but unless one has a van kicking around and a knack for welding, these are extremely expensive initiatives.


(Andy Wootton) #6

@auxbus I’m no economist but: I accept that money is a promise but I’ve also been told that it is imaginary. Like fairies, money only exists as long as we believe it does. The Euro crisis happened when Greece socialists stopped believing they had to pay Germany back the money they shouldn’t have been loaned. The ex-finance minister with the long name says Greece’s low debt ratio was the only reason they were invited into the Euro; that their downfall was planned by German bankers. (I’m not anti-German! They’re no weirder than us.)

The US financial system started believing in borrowing from the future, so it could imagine more money. I’ve heard sensible-sounding economists saying that this is suicide. You should only lend against real assets. The banks obey this when they will only lend money to people who have it. People end up on the street when that ‘rule’ is broken or when markets ‘collectively’ change the value of the asset backing the loan and the banks take back more money than people have. They are very good at passing their risk onto the poor. Those who benefit from the system need to do more about tidying up the mess they make, far away where they can’t see it. The showers should be in the financial districts, so the banks have another gauge of success to balance against their bonuses. Perhaps the new HSBC building could have had a day centre for the homeless round the back? I bet they have a corporate responsibility budget.

Did you see the cynical tweet about a student loan being a mechanism to turn the education of a student into a financial instrument? I’m sure Blair meant well when he decided 50% of the population should be educated to the same level that 10% had previously. One can only assume he wasn’t familiar with the bell-curve. The Tories were then able to turn the predictable funding shortfall into food for finance and an easily manipulated workforce.

I agree that the system must change but I don’t know what to and I don’t see any signs anyone else does, so I’m all for making tiny interventions that show desperate people that they haven’t been completely abandoned by society.


(Andy Wootton) #7

Maker spaces weld? If facilities were mobile, there would need to be an associated information system to get people to them at the right time, when suffering mental illness and living chaotic lives through addiction. Fixed locations would be used by BCC to move the problem out of sight.


(Richard Cunningham) #8

John Oliver made a good piece on the coming auto-subprime crash:

The other problem for us, in the UK, is Brexit, which is likely to push the deficit higher again. If the “solution” to this is even more austerity, then most likely, one consequence of this will be even more homelessness.


(Andy Wootton) #9

I’ve seen a victim: a 75 year old ‘sold’ a car she doesn’t need on contract for her daughter to take her out in. Her daughter has died. Her son plans to write a letter to the company about misselling to a vulnerable person.


(Jon) #10

Phew, 21% does seem high to me. But if people were to donate in the way I would like them to, it’d be 0% spent on fund-raising. My idea would be just to pay for short-term amelioration (hostel places etc) rather than handing it over to established charities anyway.

Yeah, it’s a good point. Here’s to hoping that some social justice issues will be a vote winner at the next general election.


(Matthew Somerville) #11

I would (if you haven’t already!) talk to existing services and see what they want, what they think is missing, as they’re presumably quite well placed. http://socksandchocs.co.uk/ / http://www.sifafireside.co.uk/volunteering/ is one I came across recently.


(Andy Wootton) #12

Absolutely agree with that. It’s a lesson FOSS projects stubbornly refuse to learn. Not Invented Here Syndrome causes competition where there should be co-operation. It’s the problem I’ve had trying to say what I think the ‘Midland Information Cluster’ would need to be. I don’t know what exists and I expect anything we discover would shape where we were trying to get, so it’s impossible to do gap analysis yet. I started with information multiple people were clearly unable to find. What charities there are working in Brum and what they are doing seems like another list we need to have in the Cluster but not necessarily maintained by our Flock.


(Jon) #13

“Ask existing institutions” are worthwhile sentiments. However, imagine I could raise £100 a month - that would support nine person-nights in a hostel (ten with bartering). Paid to SIFA however - which I am sure is a fine organisation - it wouldn’t cover their electricity bill.

Turns out this stuff is hard :smile:


(Jon) #14

Hmm, interesting. I’ve always been in favour of a Keynesian approach to government spending, which is that a government has a responsibility to spend its way out of a crisis. A flagging economy will not be stimulated by the private sector, which is weathering it the same as private individuals, and only govts have the spending capacity to make much of a difference anyway.

I wonder if my view is essentially a corollary from your point, since a spending government will need to borrow. Or were you making a separate point, which is that debt intrinsically creates money? I wonder if I need to read Graeber’s book on debt that you recommended some while ago… my head is turning to mush.

(I should say that whilst I have opinions on how capitalism is run, I don’t like to be mistaken for someone who is in favour of it. I am in the same bind as @Woo, which is to say I don’t know that another system X will definitely work, but the current system reeks of deliberately designed injustice, and it surely cannot be beyond the wit of man to engineer a fairer economic mechanism).


(Marc Cooper) #15

I agree that a government should spend its way out of a crisis, although it depends on the nature of the crisis. Indeed, it has an obligation to do so. This sounds counter-intuitive to those lacking the knowledge that money is debt, because it’s simply not the way we treat “money” in our daily lives.

Graeber’s, Debt is a great read. Worth it for his anthropological insights alone. Great factual stories from which to hang your thinking, rather than shaky metaphors. It is dense in places because he’s an academic, but skipping through those does not diminish the read.

I doubt we can create a new basis for the economy here on birmingham.io :smiley: However, most of us here are professional problem solvers, so we should be fine with the mechanics of doing so. For example, basics, such as examining the pain points and being open to ideas for solutions.

I have a simple personal philosophy – which I guess becomes ideology should I form a party – one of which is to minimise the Gini coefficients of income distribution [0]. (i.e. this isn’t a left vs right, socialism vs conservatism position.)

A simple mechanism for redistribution would be to increase death duties significantly. A lot of folk recoil at this idea – particularly conservatives – because they think of money as having value rather than being a debt, and the accumulation (on which they’ve paid taxes) is theirs to do with as they choose. I understand all this, but it’s the wrong way to think of it.

Money/debt needs to keep moving. Its accumulation in a few is a large part of our problem. State encouraged redistribution of “wealth” prior to death is a valid proposition – most wealthy people (and all very wealthy people) do it as a matter of course.

Let’s extrapolate. Let’s say that “wealth” (money or national debt) continues to accrete in a tiny percentage of the population. At some point, there will be insufficient money circulating in the system to support routine transactions. Then what? Add more national debt to support the “wealth” of a tiny minority? (And devalue your currency on the global market and likely raise inflation.)

It’s not that there’s not a better system. There are many, many ways we can change the system. The problems are conservatism – folk stuck in a tiny purview and unable to think for themselves, constrained by incorrect models – and a lack of understanding of what money – in all its guises – actually is.

Most folk can’t do that because, to them, money is what puts food on the table and keeps a roof over their heads. Money keeps the wolf from the door. Folk have been sold a merry dance and know nothing else.

The cake is a lie!

[0] That chart stops at 2000. Here’s more data. It was rising until the 2008 crash loomed, and remains under pressure to rise again.


(Jon) #16

Yes, the relationship between policy that reduces Gini coefficients and left-right economic attitudes is an interesting one. This index varies by country, as is well illustrated below. (The disparity between Canada and the US tells you all you need to know about the kind of neo-liberalism championed by the American elite).

The traditional view is that in order to reduce inequality (a major health and QOL disparity indicator) one must introduce a graduated income tax system that goes as high as necessary (50%+ at the top end) until the Gini index falls to an acceptable, policy-specified level. Interestingly though, there are some countries (Japan in particular) which have a low Gini coefficient and a low rate of income tax. In their case, paying relatively well to low-income earners is a matter of pride, which is a very big deal over there. More on this can be found in this excellent work (I never tire of recommending it).

However, until our Philip Greens and Mike Ashleys develop that level of decency - and folks in their class never will in the short term - a graduated level of income tax, or even a maximum income, are solutions I happily advocate. I agree about death duties - I would be happy to lose out on an inheritance windfall, especially if it could be earmarked for good causes.


(Marc Cooper) #17

The Entitled (my preferred term, in particular, because I loath the term “elite”) will never change unless the rules change. They certainly won’t suddenly find a new morality and abide by it. Perhaps one here and one there providing they are secure. I don’t blame them. They are playing by the rules. It all gets a bit ugly a few generations in, of course.

Thanks for the book recommendation. Will read. I know Japan well, so will be interested to learn anything new.

I don’t believe income tax is the great leveller. I think that’s more propaganda. The wealthiest people I know don’t even think about it. Even in my position as a freelancer operating through a company, it’s not something that concerns me much.

imo, we need to change the way we tax corporations – I favour taxing income not profits – and removing inheritance – tax movements of assets during lifetime instead. Both of these seem simpler, and in some ways fairer. More importantly, they keep money circulating. And that’s its fundamental purpose, after all.

btw, Graeber’s work is available via a Radio 4 series. Might be easier than reading the book. Starts here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05447pc


(Andy Wootton) #18

If not us, then who? I don’t see any evidence that politicians are able to break out of their tribal boxes or see beyond capitalism. Marxism no longer makes sense. The Greens have some new ideas but haven’t grabbed the public imagination.

Quite! Not just us either, if we build networks to enable distribution of discussion & decision making. Am I right to think modern capitalism was a reaction to the changes of the Industrial Revolution? Shouldn’t we expect to have to design a new economic system in response to the information revolution; and who else is trying right now? Politicians don’t appear to understand the basics of computing, to be able to contemplate what ‘digital politics’ might be. Forums like this are the online coffee houses.


(Marc Cooper) #19

(Andy Wootton) #20

Interesting but isn’t that slightly idealistic about Greece, as only ‘citizens’ were included in that lottery, who were the top layer of society who I imagine were educated in oratory, so there was a ‘minimum quality’ selection process? I think there was a different period in which votes were taken on the top of a hill, with a rope around those entitiled to vote. I like the idea of the candidates not putting themselves forward for election. I think that’s one reason Corbyn has worked out quite well for Labour. He has no history of treading on people on his way to the top. The press have actually had to invent past sins to attack him.