Britain’s shame: the people who are homeless, even though they’re in work

So many of those on the minimum wage and zero-hours can’t afford a place to live. Yet ministers gloat

The people you are about to meet are invisible. Politicians don’t mention them. Much of the media ignore them. I can see why. To say such folk exist is to admit that much more is wrong in Britain than the gatekeepers of our national conversation will allow. It’s to accept that some of our prized insights about the economy are junk, and to understand, however fleetingly, how little stands between the rest of us and complete disaster.

For all that, they are as real as you or me – and they are fast growing in number. They are people who are homeless, even though they are working.

I met some of them last week, at an emergency night shelter in the centre of London. Their jobs are with some of our biggest companies and local councils. At the end of a working day, they come back to this warehouse unit to sleep in a metal bunk bed alongside 42 others. The men share one toilet, women the other. Among the homeless, this counts as a good ticket: Shelter from the Storm provides dinner and breakfast.

Around one in three of the people bedding down here are in work. The night I went, the charity’s co-founder, Sheila Scott, looked down the list of guests and identified their employers. It was a roll call of Britain’s consumer economy: Starbucks, Eat, Pret. A woman who travelled three hours to work at a Co-op grocery. Pubs, McDonald’s, a courier for Deliveroo.

The former Tory minister George Young described the homeless as “what you step over when you come out of the opera”. No, Sir George: today’s homeless deliver your takeaways and pull pints at the local. Then they kip on park benches. Martin, who works for Islington council taking disabled children to school, told me how he’d spent a month sleeping either in Hampstead Heath or by the canal near London Zoo. “I was exhausted all the time,” he said. Some mornings, he’d knock for the children still clutching the bag that held all his belongings.

This month, the charity Shelter calculated that over 170,000 Londoners are homeless. Its researchers pieced together the data for how many were both in a job and in temporary accommodation: it amounts to nearly half (47%) of all homeless households in the capital.

Figures like these, and shelters like Scott’s, neatly puncture many of the official boasts about work in post-crash Britain. The ministerial bragging about record employment? That economic miracle would include a third of the people dossing down at Scott’s place. The smugness with which David Cameron talked about the high-tech sharing economy? The Uber driver in that bunk over there might put him right on a few things. All the blether about how strong unions will destroy the economy? The casualised workforce in these improvised dormitories make a good argument for labour protection.

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