In times of brazenfaced selfishness, with Brexit, the rise of Trump, the closure of borders and lack of sensibility towards refugees and the ‘other’, it is heartening that Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016) has been so well received across the Globe. Even in my native Brazil, where Congress has just passed a Constitutional Amendment drastically reducing the Brazilian State’s responsibility for social welfare, critics have been raving about I, Daniel Blake.
Whilst the mere mention of the word ‘socialism’ leaves some foaming at the mouth, it is at least reassuring that film buffs are touched by Ken’s portrayal of life at the forgotten end of society. Even if these critics and buffs do not represent the current tastes of most in society.
It may also be fitting to remember that exactly 50 years ago, at a time when the European continent was still busy building social democracy after the ravages of the War, Ken Loach’s landmark drama Cathy Come Home (1966; pictured at the top) – describing the plight of a working-class family’s descent into poverty – led to the creation of Crisis, the homeless organisation. They explain on their website: “Crisis was set up as a cross-party attempt to raise awareness of homelessness and destitution in East London, backed by the public groundswell of support following Cathy Come Home”.
Taking matters into my hands
Last year, I decided to spend Christmas volunteering with Crisis. Before starting our volunteering period, I received some data as part of our training: In 2015, almost 4,000 people were living in the streets of England each night. An increase of 30% on the year before almost the double of 2010. This does not even include those living in emergency accommodation, hostels, in people’s floor or squats. Approximately 60,000 families had nowhere to live and that over a quarter of a million approached their local housing departments for support with homelessness, also in 2015.
Let’s now move 10 years back in time. According to a crisis coordinator, the year of 2007/08 saw the smallest number of people living in the streets, at just 205. There was much optimism, and it was thought that the war on homelessness was about to be won. The focus on social policy, even in the form adopted by New Labour, was indeed making a difference for those at the bottom of society, and the ravages of the economic crisis were not yet to felt.
Along with the economic downturn came a change of government and the Coalition started their regime of cuts to public expenditure. These changes were welcomed by a large chunk of the population already accustomed to the media’s mantra that the negative economic performance was the result of the Labour Party’s willingness to ‘waste money on inefficient social policies’.
Today, with the NHS reaching breaking point and the exponential growth in food banks, it is clear that cuts brought about in order to achieve ‘efficiency savings’ or deal with those that ‘take advantage’ system, invariably impact on the lives of the most vulnerable members of society. I, Daniel Blake reveals precisely this phenomenon.
Cuts in housing benefit, mental health (80% of homeless people suffer from some sort of mental health problem) and social services are some of the factors that have led to an increase in homelessness. Other reasons are the recession, low pay and xenophobia. In London, last year 35% of homeless people were from Eastern Europe. Many end up on the street because they lost their jobs.
In our centre, the number of Eastern Europeans was very significant. A Romanian man told me that he lost his job when the company he worked for went bankrupt. He had been homeless for 22 days. There were also many Africans, mainly refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. Cuts in funding for local authorities resulted in a strict interpretation of housing legislation, so that only those groups of people considered ‘priority’ receive support.
Cathy vs Katie
In a world distant from the 1960s of Cathy Come Home, Katie (Hayley Squires), in I, Daniel Blake struggles with a different sort of homeless. One that pushes her away from her family, miles away from London, to Newcastle where she can no longer rely on friends and family.
Just as Ken Loach chose to portray a different facet of homelessness, highlight a hidden aspect of what it means to be homeless and poor in the 21st Century, in today’s world different strategies are needed to harness people’s support and compassion.
During our one day training I asked myself why Crisis needed so many generalist volunteers. I understood the need for specialists: cooks, doctors, hairdressers, nurses, etc. But why would you need so many generalist volunteers, like us?
This year there were almost 12,000 volunteers for 4,500 homeless people. Almost four volunteers per homeless person. Just think: one of the main complaints of the homeless is that they are invisible. Then, 10 days a year, they are spoiled by four willing persons. People to open doors for them, people to wait on them, people to play cards with… People!
My teenage daughter even joked on the way to the centre, singing ironically: “we’re going to work for Crisis, we’re going to do gap duty, we’re going to block the doorways so the homeless can’t come in…”
Jokes apart, it is true that we spent a lot of time doing the so-called gap duty. That is, sitting with another person in front of some door or other, by an activity room, near the bathrooms or improvised dormitories. It strange as it may seem, but gap duties have their reason. Firstly, because these centres are temporary, having other functions throughout the year. Ours was a school, so there were many areas restricted to our ‘guests’. Secondly, because there is a real need to supervision. After all, we were dealing with vulnerable people, many of whom under the influence of alcohol or drugs. That is why we needed to be in pairs. Thirdly, and perhaps the real reason behind our work, is that it is a way for us, generalist volunteers, to have contact with the homeless.
Compassion and complicity
But perhaps most important is the individual experience of each volunteer. It is a time for personal awareness, where it is hoped that the time spent with the homeless will open their minds. When a volunteer opens a door to a homeless person, sits with them at the dinner table, blocks the entrance to the dormitory whilst they queue up for the best spaces near the walls, he or she is induced to share experiences, to chat and, in this way, be able to see that that person they have walked past so many times in the streets, making them feel uncomfortable, making them look the other way, is not different from us.
That if it were not for our circumstances: where we were born, where we come from, our health, our education… it could be us instead of them being ignored by the steps of a bank, it could be us being kicked by a wealthy drunkard on his way home from a party.
When Loach launched Cathy Come Home in 1966, society was differently organised, people felt more bonded to each other and society was more cohesive. Some say that people’s hardships and sacrifices before and during the war provided enough justification for the ties of solidarity and the development of the welfare state. Others that the threat of looming communism made governments accept the need to provide the population with some sort of assistance. Others still believe that solidarity disappeared with the rising power of individualism and a laisser–faire culture.
Whatever the reasons, we seem to be living in an era where it is necessary to remind us that life can take an unexpected turn and that, at the end of the day, we are all the same. Crisis does it through volunteering, Ken Loach through cinema.
You too can volunteer at Crisis – just click here for more information.