Inside Brighton’s Homeless

The Verse’s Liam Doherty writes a powerful essay on the ongoing issues of the homeless in Brighton & Hove – and the flaws in our society.

Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets… who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.

– Charles Dickens

After a year studying here, each return I’ve made to Brighton has fallen short of feeling homely. Invariably one is greeted by rain outside, (more) mould inside and people posing with their Pokédogs[1] every when and where in-between. Hacking the weather, fungal fridge and spectacular canine (in)breeds is part of life, though, I’m repeatedly told: you suffer them because you must. We in the Anglosphere complain about these things, as any true Englishman-or-woman does – and should – we complain about having to hack Brighton’s drizzle, damp and dogs because they’re just part of life here. We must because, crucially, we can’t change them.

It is hard to hack the inhumane when this ‘must’ is absent; where we tolerate the totally unnecessary for no good reason. We have and we do: we’ve accepted and ignored, normalised and excused the unacceptable and inexcusable on so many levels. This complaint implores myriad particularities – in our law, social care, healthcare, housing, education, entertainment, media, etcetera – so let’s get down to it.

What makes Brighton so profoundly unhomely is, fittingly, the homeless. Everywhere. Through the Laines and on the Level, up North and London Roads; from the posher side of Kemptown, past their vigils at the Clock Tower, all the way to poshly Hove: the wretched of Brighton’s berth, strewn rain or shine, shivering or sweltering, for all to see and desperately avoid looking at. Nary a day’ll pass me by without seeing some hollowed husk of a human heaped on the pavement being gawped at by the homeful for each second of their approaching stride, until the homeless look up to murmur at them for change; their gaze will be implausibly, sometimes laughably, jerked into any other direction. I bet if the homeless had a quid for each time that happened in a day, they wouldn’t need to beg. Nor work.

Homelessness in Brighton is a sick joke in poor taste. In May, I saw showroom and shack virulently erected for the Brighton Fringe festival in mere hours. A couple more days and Brighton got it up for our ‘Fringe’: the Circus of Moscow, the Ladyboys of Bangkok, Brighton’s best and barmiest. Crying shame the piss-poor and dying beggary didn’t make the fringe-trim this year, but did we really have to rub it in?[2] We’re of the better cities of the richer countries on this earth – the Green constituency! – yet all we’ve to say to our hundreds of homeless? Make yourself scarce, you’re turning us off. Fortunately for the Fringers, Community Support Officers ‘move on’ (newspeak for ‘harass and forcibly displace’) rough (sleeping) sleepers; Police strafe streets plain-clothed, lifting those daring to beg for your coppers – even ten pence. Hiding and/or criminalising the marginalised, like any crackpot totalitarian regime worth its salt would. But they can’t just leave it at that, they say: don’t give them money, for they’ll spend it on drugs (see links above, e.g.). What a way to alienate and demonise: to subhumanise.

Think! Analogise, understand, empathise. Alcohol, drugs and junk-food are habitually consumed by another British social strata, does the state instruct the employing public to withhold money from these people? Well, of course not![3]. That’s your right, isn’t it? Even though we don’t need the cider to sleep; the food, so desperately, to eat; the blanket for a comforting semblance of heat. So what’s different for those on the street? That you earned it, they did not, therefore you deserve it and they do not? Do social and circumstantial screwings disqualify one from the right to (street)life’s most basic necessities?
This feels backwards. Perhaps I approach this too plainly. Perhaps it’s not the state, our society; maybe it is they who’ve screwed themselves.

I cross a middle-aged man on a bench eating a pasty just past the crack of dawn, looks like he’s been on a mad one so I sit to read next to him, expecting some chirps. The ‘mad one’ he’s been on, or rather sleeping under, is a bush in the same park. He’s sober but filthy, homeless for a few months. His son died, he lost his job in mourning (seems you can’t put a few weeks limit on that shit) and now he’s out on the streets begging for pennies to buy pasty breakfasts. He didn’t ask for any money and shook my hand limply, seeming pretty defeated. Probably drinking by now.

A homeless man and woman in their twenties – a ballpark guess for humans ravaged by malnutrition, lack of sleep, etcetera – come into Shelter. The woman asks for and gets a warm jacket. The dude’s on a crutch and looks pained, as much as the alcohol may’ve anaesthetised him: his grubby face is riddled with scrapes and bruises, one eye is closing and he thinks he’s broken ribs. What happened?! Kicked and stomped whilst sleeping rough. The guy’s parent died, his name goes on the lease, he can’t pay: out on your ass mate. They sleep rough together, as the couple they are, he cuddling (big-spooning) her on the outside of whatever space they may find so he can take the brunt of whatever stomping may occur. They could sleep with the junkies but have no interest in being around imbibers of spice, crack or heroin (few of the homeless I speak to do). So they’re in a pickle for finding a spot that’s big enough for the both of them: not so out of the way that they’ll be assaulted with impunity, not so central that the friendly neighbouring police squad harasses them, as they’d done the night before – so assaulted with impunity again, then. The officers threw their belongings in the street before the woman could be roused from her necessarily alcohol-induced sleep. Protesting, as I guess one would, the man’s threatened with arrest. He assures me, “if it weren’t for her”, he’d go – three square meals a day! He makes a jibe about her not cooking enough and they laugh a laboured, wheezy laugh together.
My friendly neighbourhood tramp approaches me. I haven’t seen him in a few days, he looks rough(er) and has a bruised split across his nose. Without his usual salutation, he blurts out: “What’s missing?!” Pfft, I don’t bleedin’ know – oh! “The dog.” For (presumably illegally?) playing bat and ball with his and his friend’s dog, the Police rock up: baton him in the face, break his nose. His friend’s dog bites the officer’s leg. His dog is impounded and he thrown in the clink too. Now he has to wrap a muzzle around his (all local residents will agree) docile, darling dog’s face, for no good reason – dangerous dogs and all that. I wonder why the homeless human was deemed dangerous. He reads novels, plays with his dog and, when people spare him dosh, gives change (a copper if he has it).

Passing ‘the bench’, a popular spot for many of Brighton’s homeless, a friend hollers at me. I walk over, ask him what’s new. Lots! But all of the news is, like The News: bad. Beaten up two consecutive nights, quite brutally; his mates tell me he’s fitted a couple of times since. Lost his job as a kitchen porter due to injuries sustained and not having engaged with the right bureaucratic elements to prove he was not at fault. Robbed by a not-so-friendly friend of all his money, save for eighty pence. Savings were made over many months for a housing deposit and were about to cover him visiting his child. Instead, back to square one: bench, beer.

Exactly a half-millennia ago, Counsel to King Henry VIII Saint-or-Sir Thomas More published his titularly neologistic treatise Utopia[4]. It may seem fanciful, but I think that this renaissance religious fanatic, busied by flagellation and counselling history’s whore-king[5], has something pertinent to teach us today.

Sir More was chatting with an English lawyer with ‘a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves… hanged so fast, that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet’. The lawyer was bemused by how there were ‘so many thieves left who were still robbing’. More, bolshie and half-cut, pointed out how ‘tenants, are turned out of their possessions, by tricks, or by main force’ and when their ‘little money is at an end… what is left for them to do, but either to steal… Or to go about and beg? And if they do this, they are put in prison as idle vagabonds; while they would willingly work, but can find none that will hire them’.

Contemporary issues are then, quite accurately, age-old[6]. The underclasses are most prone to homelessness and therefore to poverty; when certainty of food and shelter and safety are compromised, so too is morality. Justifiably so.

As I write, a homeless woman whispers a croaky plea for change. “Sorry, it’s so embarrassing!” What a warped reality in which we live. It’s not surviving, it’s not symptomatic of the sick state of a careless society, it’s ‘embarrassing’. My wallet’s less-cherished copper lodgers are front pocket, readied for next beggar I was to doubtless cross. What’s the fucking point? A tawdry titbit towards alcohol to just-about sleep or food to just-about subsist or the seldom-affordable overnight hostel. If I’m thinking this, what must they think? Oftentimes worse, but oftentimes much better, where the spice and crack and heroin are absent: the philosophy one finds in these humans – in summer at least – can be inspirational and exemplary: you only live once; do unto others as you’d have done unto you; ‘could be better, could be worse; same as yesterday’ (my local’s tagline and personal favourite), etcetera. But hunger and winter will knock the chirp and comradeship right out of many; the soul and life from a few.

Poverty simplifies and barbarises relations, necessitating criminality: the problem is systemically cultivated and its symptoms decreed criminal, thus: criminality is nurtured and perpetuated – created by, in and for the system. It was obvious to Sir More five whole centuries ago! ‘If you suffer your people to be ill educated [treated and provisioned], and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy [e.g. by the societal obsessions with sex, violence, drink and drugs], and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education [treatment, lacking provision, culturally inculcated mannerisms] disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?’ [Italics mine.] A thief tries simply to immediately survive; but does not empathise and think the act as mediately criminal, something reprehensible and other than simply surviving. If the victim’s also homeless, as they often are, they suffer and immediately want revenge, but cannot mediate and identify this urge as manifesting that which they have suffered from. This circle[7] can be centrifugally vicious[8]; with the ubiquity and habitually rampant excesses of British drink and drug usage, really quite messy.

Understand, then, that a tenancy isn’t terminated due to rent arrears; vulnerable humans are made moreso by a system of unaffordable, unoccupied residences, complicated by personal problems and a mostly careless society. Same thing again: the biscuits lifted from Aldi aren’t nicked out of nastiness, rather to immediately relieve the haunt of hunger – shoplifting is, fleetingly, povertylifting. A debit card kindly lent isn’t then emptied out of spite but to, again fleetingly, escape and enjoy life without the incessant nag of depressive destitution. They aren’t unemployed because they’re lazy; they are begging for monetary mercy because they’re unemployed, considered unemployable[9] and your average human, let alone businessperson, ignores them. A sleeping bag isn’t stolen vindictively, but to survive the crippling cold. Dogs aren’t bred for bettering returns out begging, they help one survive the crippling loneliness. Alcohol isn’t stolen in spite then chugged in celebration; it is to temper this cold loneliness, to anaesthetise the body and the soul. Booze and drugs are just that: escaping the past, numbing the present, fucking the future – or lack thereof. We are not vulnerable to homeless humans’ crime; their vulnerability in homelessness has necessitated criminality[10]. Is being asked for change, having Morrisons a four-pack short, seeing a tent in the park, really that offensive – is it criminal?

So, back to (I’ll concede) ‘Saint’ Thomas More: saintly for his then-revolutionarily kindness, out of sync with his time, understandably, and still out of sync with ours, frustratingly – limited as his moral vision was. And his limit is what I cherish and chuckle at most in Utopia: one certain blaring moral contradiction to which St More was (ideologically) blinded is contemporarily illuminative. After agreeing to converse with a friend, oh-so-saintly Mr More coolly reports that ‘after dinner [we] came back, and sat down in the same place. I ordered my servants to take care that none might come and interrupt us.’ (Servant is translated from the Latin servus, actually meaning slave… a lenient translator indeed.) We live in an epoch wrought with and warped by similar shrieking contradictions: ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ We need to recognise homelessness as of a barbarous time of selfishness and carelessness, we need to start looking homelessness – and the homeless for that matter – in the face: it is as silly a societal institution as slavery was, and poorly waged zero-hour labour is for that matter.

Anachronistic ignorance notwithstanding, (we’ll settle with) Mister Thomas More did dare to suggest that we might do ‘much better to make such good provisions by which every man might be put in a method how to live… preserved from the necessity of stealing’[11] [italics mine].

The lawyer with whom he argued countered this suggestion, informing More that ‘there are many handicrafts, and there is husbandry… unless they have a greater mind to follow ill courses.’ ‘That will not serve your turn’, More bellowed drunkenly in retort, his goblet crashing to and splashing upon the table, ‘for many lose their limbs in civil or foreign wars… thus mutilated in the service of their king and country’. That reminds me. I frequented one of the posher parks one lunchtime, there’s not much grass left to sit on; but, conspicuously and fortuitously, on one of the larger benches just one man sat – oh, I see, he’s homeless. Is the smell really that unbearable? Or is it something else?[12] Either way I rightly bank on an easy flow of interesting conversation, ‘nicer’ smelling folk tend to drone weather and referenda. Falkland’s War vet, sixty-nine years of age, just booted from the hostel in which he’d been staying longterm – for drinking, zero tolerance on alcohol, you see. So, a veteran of a British war, turning seventy in a few days, reacquainting himself with sleeping underneath park bushes. “Disposable. Fucking disposable”, he laments. I think, loudly in silent reply, disposed. Also that he’d be as good as dead if it weren’t summer, along with scores of fellow rough sleepers perishing in oh-so-progressive Brighton. I wonder what his situation is, I’ll make sure to ask him and write it up. If and when I see him. I just hope it’s not his picture I see passing another Clock Tower vigil.

For those interested in what the police will have to say on this matter, I suggest you follow this link.

[1] I notice Brightonian dog fetishists showing off their pet self-extensions to each other in the same way, often in the same parks, as kids playing Pokémon.
[2] I believe the shelter is opened in winter if there are two or three consecutive nights that fall below zero degrees centigrade.
[3] Why? Because you: a) are farmable b) therefore profitable c) therefore not considered a sub-human societal scourge d) therefore have a contingent right to whatever you can afford – the law of carelessly carefree capitalism: free to play the rigged game, all too free to lose it. Or, e) ‘that’s just the way is.’
[4] More’s book pioneered the utopian genre: of imagined ideal communities and societies (and, I guess, in a way its anti-genre: the dystopian). I quote from the 1997 Dover Thrift Edition, translated from Latin to English.
[5] Henners had his head lopped off for not legally recognising his supremely supreme supremacy, as kings have that intractable habit of nagging for. More preferred to die: “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
[6] Save, obviously, for the hangman. We box ‘em outta sight and mind nowadays, it keeps the public shut up too. (Pun half-intended.)
[7] I used the term ‘vicious circle’ to a beggar the other day. He asked me: “But have you ever seen a vicious circle?” It gave me pause. He then touched his forefinger and thumb together to make a circle, and jabbed at me with it growling viciously.
[8] A micro-to-macro-cosmic trend: from homeless fights to family feuds to gang wars to total wars of attrition.
[9] Applied for a half-dozen unskilled positions myself, no joy.
[10] “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” – Karl Marx.
[11] N.B. It is still ‘man’ and not ‘man and woman’.
[12] For those who may argue it being chance, I’d suggest checking out the bench on New Road or the seating at Old Steine Gardens or the Level or Pavilion Gardens.

The Verse Staff

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