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Homelessness is not just for Christmas

Attention must be given to the problem of homelessness all year round if the issue is to be tackled.

The Britannia Royal Hotel, Hull, caused outrage early last week by cancelling a charity booking reserved for 28 homeless people.

Carl Simpson, of Raise the Roof Homeless Project, initiated the £1,092 charity venture in the hope of providing two nights of welcome relief for some of Hull’s rough sleepers over the Christmas period. Their mission had been unduly aborted. A spokesperson for the hotel cited a call from someone claiming to be from the charity, who had warned of “trashing of rooms, fires, theft of hotel goods and property and damage to property” at last year’s event, in an attempt to explicate the hotel’s decision to cancel. Ibis, host of the 2017 Christmas booking, denies that this was the case and the Project itself has denounced the accusations as “lies”. That the Royal Hotel’s actions stem from a discriminatory stance towards the homeless community seems to be undeniable. The cancellation is a perfect distillation of the nation-wide stigma attached to the issue of homelessness and the homeless themselves in the UK. The hotel must come to terms with the media backlash and public outcry they have incited.

For me, the actions of the Britannia Royal Hotel provoke a second, more fundamental consideration about the nature of homelessness in the UK. Upon reading the story we should feel uncomfortable, even outraged, with the hotel’s myopic, insensitive handling of the whole affair. Their defence is anecdotal at best and insulting at worst, and the criticism levelled against them is rightfully scathing. But, if we are to take a step back from the specifics we see reported in the news, the detached observation is a simple one: an isolated mistreatment of a group of homeless people at their most vulnerable has rightly created public outcry. The story in the news is a demonstration of the media and the public’s increased perceptiveness towards the issue of homelessness during the harsh winter months. But homelessness is not a seasonal problem.

It is easy to see why homelessness is often perceived as a more pertinent issue over Christmas. The sub-zero temperatures and stark weather patterns constitute a severe or even fatal threat to anyone living rough on the streets – a horrific reminder of this came when a homeless man collapsed and died outside Parliament just this week. Indeed, during the winter of 2017, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported the deaths of at least 78 homeless people in the UK. The severity of the problem is further magnified by the fact that much of the rest of the population spends the festive period exchanging presents and sipping mulled wine in the warmth of their own homes. But it is not enough to take most notice of homelessness at a time when its most obvious effects are pronounced, where rough sleepers are literally freezing to death on the streets. We should do more to fight for pre-emptive measures.

On the same day as news about the Britannia Royal Hotel’s cancellation broke, Lord John Bird wrote in an article for The Big Issue, the publication which he founded: “Treating poverty of this kind as a seasonal concern gets you nowhere fast. We have a system that you might call winter comfort. Yet the reason why people are homeless – and why we need to help them – happens in all the other seasons.” In other words, the issue of homelessness simply doesn’t remain in the headlines for long enough. Lord Bird further claimed in the article that he has refused to be interviewed by TV and radio stations about homelessness this Christmas. His actions constitute a protest at the media’s seemingly fickle shows of sympathy towards the issue, until the next, more exciting item comes up on their agenda.

Importantly, the fact that the Christmas period helps to raise awareness about homelessness is certainly a good thing, but we should do more to spread this awareness and focus our attention on the systematic causes of homelessness. Not enough is being done to tackle the issues of mental health, rising house prices, and the generally negative public perception of rough sleepers. If we were able to maintain our concern across all seasons, there might be fewer people living on the streets at Christmas.

Although, thankfully, the Doubletree by Hilton, Hull, has offered to put the group up free of charge, with breakfast and Christmas dinner included, over these dates, they will still return to the streets after the 25th. We should not stop fighting for them once the Christmas lights have been turned off.

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