By Charlotte Molloy
On a sweltering May afternoon, to the feverish clatter of a thousand church bells and the cheers of millions of adoring subjects, a beautiful young royal couple emerged from a majestic castle in a horse drawn carriage to ride off into the sunset and to live out their days in apparent blissful carefree happiness.
Despite the overwhelming fairy tale splendour of Meghan and Harry’s wedding, the joyous occasion has dragged one of the ugliest aspects of 21st century Britain to the world’s attention: How we treat our homeless.
Over the past eight years, rounds of debilitating cuts to social care and ever worsening economic conditions under the Conservative government have pushed hundreds of thousands of Britons into homelessness, stripping them of their most basic human dignities, leaving them voiceless, and increasingly maligned.
Although most of us with eyes and ears know that this has been a problem for years, the way that the homeless of Windsor were spoken about and treated in the lead up to the royal wedding has been truly eye opening.
In January, the Conservative leader of Windsor and Maidenhead council wrote to police asking for the homeless to be removed ahead of the wedding, largely on aesthetic grounds, claiming that they were “an unfavourable sight in a beautiful town.” Boy needs a slap.
Then in the days leading up to the wedding, there was further hostility by the authorities towards the town’s homeless population when the police impounded a charity bus that was offering them food and refuge for the night, and reportedly took homeless folks’ belongings to “store until after the event for security reasons.”
Although on the day the authorities didn’t act on this threat and left them alone, the fact that we now live in a country where a government official can treat actual human beings as if they were common pests like rats or weeds is frightening.
To better understand the challenges faced by Britain’s homeless population, the day after Harry and Meghan tied the knot I took to the streets of Windsor and spoke to five people about their lives, and their experiences of being homeless.
I spoke to Stephanie, a former shop assistant and photographer from Sunbury, Mathew, a former carpenter from Poland, Stewart, a former builder from Lancashire, James, a former electrician from Leyton Buzzard, and Lewis from Reading.
All five, despite their desperate circumstances, were bubbly, chatty, and delighted for a bit of company.
They all agreed that their current circumstances are the result of the restrictions and cuts to social services made by the Conservative government in the past eight years.
Mathew told me that he became homeless after an accident at a building site left him unfit for work but, according to the current department for work and pensions regulations, “not disabled enough to qualify for benefits.”
According to Stewart, the local authorities did not consider his mental health issues to be serious enough and as a result he was evicted from the council flat he was living in.
They are denied the basic human decency that the rest of us just take for granted. Stephanie says she hasn’t washed properly in weeks and her clothes have started to rot to rags on her body.
From the cold nights on the streets she has picked up a fearsome cough but is struggling to get a doctor to see her because without an address, homeless folk can only get emergency appointments. No guys, this is not an extract from a Dickens novel, this is genuinely the condition of a woman sleeping rough in Windsor in May 2018.
The people I spoke to also felt that society has been very quick to judge and ignore them.
The five say that the throngs of people that tread the towns streets each day either act like they’re totally invisible or look at them with disgust. Stewart wearily says “they don’t know how easily they too could be homeless. It can happen to anyone at any time. Most of us weren’t bloody smack heads and wasters before this, like people think.”
The incredible lack of respect and care for these people that the public shows for these people was most vividly shown by a woman who came up to Stephanie and me whilst we were talking.
Outwardly, she seemed sympathetic and generous, giving Stephanie a whole packet of cigarettes. She said “its like Christmas!”
But to her dismay, when she opened the packet, all that joy evaporated as she realised that there was just one bent cigarette left. On the surface, some pretend to care, but it really just comes across as superficial and insulting.
The final crucial thing that all five were keen to impress on me was how difficult it is to escape from homelessness once you are in it. Contrary to what Daily Mail readers and their beloved Conservative government might think, these people aren’t homeless because they are “lazy or its easy” as Stephanie puts it.
James recently got hired and started working again as an electrician. However, as soon as his company found out that he was homeless and living out of his van, they fired him. The other four people I spoke to said basically the same thing. Without an address, they can’t get a job. Without a job, they can’t escape homelessness. It’s a vicious cycle.
Whilst the eyes of the world were glued to the radiant young royal couple, in the periphery of that pretty picture Stephanie, Matthew, Stewart, James, and Lewis suffered in silence. Whilst a cool £35 million of tax payers money was spent without a second thought on Meghan and Harrys’ big day, Lewis struggled to make just £35 to get himself off the streets for a night and stay at the “cheapest bed and breakfast in Slough.”
The five people I spoke to were ordinary, decent human beings. They had jobs, lives, and dreams. Like the rest of us they just want food, shelter, and a bit of peace. Stephanie’s eyes light up when we talk about lipstick, Stewart and James turn into giddy lads when they chat about the football.
They’re just like you and me, and definitely do not deserve to be spoken about and treated in the horrible way the government and media are treating them at the moment. Something seriously needs to change!
You can donate and find out more information about how to get involved with helping the homeless with Shelter, the UK’s housing and homeless shelter, here.
You can also donate to Windsor’s Homeless Project here.