Homelessness is 21st century Britain’s biggest shame

James Marston says we need to stop turning away from the homelessness in our midst Picture: bodnarch

James Marston says we need to stop turning away from the homelessness in our midst Picture: bodnarchuk - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

James Marston says Britain has become Dickensian again. And it's time to stop turning our heads away from this scourge of modern times

I daren't criticise the Saudi government – I might go missing. I'm avoiding cathedral cities in the West Country in case I get poisoned. I daren't talk about farmers as any critique of the Common Agricultural Policy generates hate mail. I don't want to discuss Brexit, it gets people wound up. I don't much like tv adverts advertising sanitary products, or badly behaved children – which seem to be the scourge of any public place – or this growing trend in self-diagnosed food intolerances, or the state of the roads, or whatever it is that riles me after a simple reading of the news.

But this week I have been reflecting over a problem that no one seems to want to discuss – the elephant in our communal room – the homeless on the very margins of our lives.

What's happened to our country? Why are we not looking after the weakest in our society with care and compassion? It seems to me we are simply turfing those with mental health issues on the street and ignoring them.

A walk through any sizeable town –and in our region these are some of the most affluent in the western world – and it is impossible not to notice the sheer number of homeless. It's not just parts of the East End and London railway stations where you might see a homeless person, like it was when I was a boy, there are no longer friendly old slightly eccentric bearded tramps living in hedgerows that would do a little manual work here and there.

There are, instead, young and ever younger men and women being robbed of their lives, through addiction, and other mental health problems that we seem to do little about – apart from ignore.

I am ashamed and we should all be ashamed that we are allowing this in 21st century Britain. A short stroll through Norwich or Ipswich and one might be forgiven for thinking we are in the poverty-rife Dickensian world or gin-ridden Hogarthian London such are the numbers of those in the grip of addiction and the despair of homelessness.

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According to the Mental Health Foundation, there is an often overlooked link between homelessness and mental health – in fact I found some sobering facts.

-In 2014, 80% of homeless people in England reported that they had mental health issues, with 45% having been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

-Studies have reported a higher prevalence of mental health problems in the homeless population in comparison to the general population, including major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

-The most prevalent health problems among homeless individuals are substance misuse (62.5%), mental health problems (53.7%) or a combination of the two (42.6%).

-Many homeless people cite mental health problems as a reason for being homeless - 26% of homeless people in the UK (this is double the percentage of that in the rest of the EU).

It is not simply the fault of the government or someone else's problem. There, but for a lost job, a difficult set of circumstances, a breakdown in a relationship, or the myriad of human problems that could beset anyone, go us all.

I find it difficult, as we all do, and too often simply walk on by. But these are people, like you and me.

Recently our newspaper started a story with the sentence 'A father who froze to death, a 23-year-old found dead near Carrow Road - in the last year homeless people have died in places from cemeteries to hostels - but no one is counting them.'

We aren't even counting them in death, let alone life.

James' Mailbag

My comments on Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, last week garnered some further comment I thought I'd share with you.

Dear James

It was lovely to read your article on Camilla. I have always admired her and she will make a very good Queen and will I'm sure always support her husband the Prince of Wales.

I also have great respect for our own Charles.

Camilla has not had an easy time over the past years but I think she has won over the public. I've seen her at the Norfolk Show and and watched how she greets the people and also how she never attempts to upstage Prince Charles.

Thank you for the article and also for your weekend column. I look forward to hearing more about your future in the church. My cousin is a vicar in Suffolk,

Doreen Graham Blofield

Dear James,

Your instincts about Camilla having a heart for ordinary people I think could be right. Having previously held an image of her as 'the other woman' in Diana's marriage, I was nevertheless happy to hear Camilla make a remark when presenting an NHS prize to a research consultant.

She said it isn't just about the notable achievements like his, but about the day to day achievements of all the staff in the NHS, at whatever level. As a semi-retired outpatient secretary, she gained my respect and gratitude for that insight.

Audrey Naylor

If you would like to write to James, please do so at james.marston@archant.co.uk