From the March 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard
If you were to hear of a country where one in 25 of the inhabitants were affected by homelessness — two million people — what country would spring to your mind?
You might imagine a Third World country, or a war-torn one. It is neither. The country in fact is . . . England
The figures above are an unofficial estimate by the housing charity Shelter (Homelessness in England — The Facts, information release, October 1993). The official figures are hardly more cheery. In 1991/2 a total of 196,039 households were officially accepted as being homeless in England and Scotland together. This understates the case, however.
There are no comprehensive figures for single homelessness nationally. Shelter estimate there may be around 50,000 single people homeless in Britain. Official figures exclude the majority of the single homeless, and only include households deemed in "priority need", for instance, those with children.
It can be easy to conclude that either there is a dreadful lack of houses, or many feckless people exist. Certainly, many believe so, especially those who think that our capitalist society is the only world possible.
The truth, though, is blindingly and tragically plain. It involves the perennial co-traveller of the working class — poverty. It doesn’t matter that an individual or family needs a decent, warm and comfortable house, if they do not have enough of the rationing vouchers that capitalism calls money, then tough. Capitalism has one driving force, and that is to make profit, not to supply resources to prevent pressing social need.
Capitalism is run in the interests of those who own the means of making wealth. The working class, who own nothing in the way of creating wealth, have no choice but to work for the capitalist class for wages or salaries, and through their labour create every last penny of profit for the privileged class.
Yet many members of the working class have been able to buy a home. At a time when nearly three million people are unemployed, they are indeed fortunate to have a job and an income to secure a mortgage. Or are they?
Many believe they own their home, little realizing that in reality the bank or building society does. "Owning" is a misnomer, in that "ownership" can so easily be removed. In 1992, in England alone, 68,540 houses were repossessed. In the first half of 1993 courts in England and Wales awarded a further 53,436 re-possession orders.
In addition, a large number of people live on the knife-edge of being repossessed, with the resultant toll of stress and misery. A Roof magazine survey claims that 800,000 home owners are in mortgage arrears, with over a third of a million in arrears of six months or more.
Renting a house, or flat, might seem a safer and more affordable way of getting a decent home to live in. But the facts of life here are not very enjoyable either. The 1991 Housing Conditions Survey for England and Wales (covering private, rented, local authority and housing association houses) revealed that 1.5 million occupied houses were unfit to live in (Independent, 10 September). It also found that one-in-20 of owner-occupied houses were of an unfit standard.
Misery knows no borders either. The 1993 Scottish House Condition Survey found that one-in-20 of occupied houses were unfit to live in. Also, nearly a third of Scotland’s occupied houses were found to suffer dampness, condensation and mould. These figures were reinforced by the 1993 Glasgow Housing Survey. It found one-in-5 of private rented housing was unfit, "Below Tolerable Standard" to use the official term.
Millions are affected by homelessness, the threat of homelessness, and living in "Below Tolerable Standard" housing. Multiply these figures across the whole of the developed world, and the amount of human misery connected to housing problems due to working-class lack of means is phenomenal. Capitalists don't have housing problems, other than getting more, or bigger, mansions for themselves.
None of this is new, of course. When capitalism is in recession — which is a permanently-recurring feature of the profit system — levels of poverty rise. But poverty, and its symptoms like homelessness, don’t go away when capitalism is booming. It — they — only stand slightly in the shadows.
Many construction workers are currently unemployed; there are large stockpiles of bricks and building materials, while the figures above tell of the number of people who need a decent home to live in.
A caring, people-based society would readily see the solution: apply the skills and resources to the problem. That will not happen in our capitalist society, for the missing ingredient of profit cannot be made in sufficient quantities. And it makes no difference that society becomes more aware of homelessness, and wishes to do something about it, for the capitalist rule is: No Profit, No Solution.
Capitalist politicians — be they Conservative, Labour or Liberal — periodically latch on to the plight of the homeless and pretend that something is being done, or that they know what the solution is.
My own constituency MP spent a night in December camping out on the street in Edinburgh in his sleeping bag, with like-minded people, to draw attention to homelessness. Amazingly, our capitalist opponents are always saying that we are the wooly-minded idealists.
Capitalism runs governments, not the other way round. Reforms are a redistribution of poverty, not wealth. And reforms are reversible. Remember the Welfare State? Real Socialists do know the solution and it’s the only one that tackles the real problem, not merely the symptoms. Capitalism needs to go.
Homelessness, and just about every other social ill, will never be solved in a capitalist world. That is not mere pessimism on our part, it is a fact you can confirm by reading your paper every day, then looking to see how the world around you really is.
Meanwhile, workers everywhere can only keep their fingers crossed that illness, unemployment, and poverty don’t pull them into the misery of homelessness. Or they could be thinking how Socialism could be a move to something better than the mess capitalism is.