If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of home–and especially a safe one. While Maeve McClenaghan began her investigation of UK homelessness before the coronavirus pandemic hit, her work has new significance when viewed through the lens of the past few months. How can you observe a stay-at-home order with no home to go to?
This thoughtful and well-written investigative work focuses on the UK homeless population, officially considered as 12,000 rough sleepers but charities estimate to be much, much higher when considering those who are couch-surfing, living in hotels, or would otherwise be considered to be in an unstable housing situation. McClenaghan examines the many social and political factors that have led to the twofold increase in homelessness in the 2010s–Tory austerity, the ‘Hostile Environment’ immigration policy, cuts to all kinds of social services. She also chooses to profile a select few homeless people from across the UK, coming from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances who all have one thing in common: they died homeless.
As you can probably guess, this is not an easy work to read–McClenaghan’s subjects have faced horrific situations, often been the victims of abuse, have struggled with addiction and illness and mental health issues that have largely gone untreated in the wake of massive cuts to NHS and local councils. In every instance, McClenaghan unfortunately identifies the many missed opportunities for social services to help these people turn their lives around and hopefully prevent their deaths. She focuses on the advantages and shortcomings of programmes like Housing First, and the frustrating combination of good intentions and little government support that often leads to these programmes stalling out. This book is an introduction to the Moibus strip of the UK benefit system, where a well-meaning and aspirational person can be ground down by bureaucracy, being charged fee after fee they don’t have, and struggling to accept unfit housing knowing that making themselves ‘intentionally homeless’ will deny them help forever.
One of the most affecting ways McClenaghan explores her subjects is focusing on a variety of backgrounds. There’s Fabian, who charmed Milton Keynes locals as a Big Issue merchant but succumbed to alcoholism. There’s Conred, who was forced to sleep rough after the Windrush scandal left him undocumented after decades living in the UK. There’s Tony, whose mental health struggles left him unable to make rent and unwilling to accept help from his family, dying while squatting in the shed of his former home. And Guyal, who died of exposure within sight of Parliament, where MPs promised action on homelessness but failed to deliver. Many of the deaths McClenaghan explores are of people who had support systems, whether in the form of local social workers, friends they had made in shelters and outreach programmes, or family members trying desperately to find them, get in contact, and get them help–but for one reason or another, they all slipped through the cracks. McClenaghan attended many of her subjects’ funerals, and the scenes she describes are heartbreaking, especially of local officials surprised by the prospect that these rough sleepers had friends and families who cared so deeply about them, as though they can’t entertain the idea that these people are humans.
One of the barriers to McClenaghan’s work is that she pauses to explain a lot–which is necessary in a work like this, but it can make the narrative feel a bit stalled at times. Even though this book has a UK focus, McClenaghan explores strategies that have worked elsewhere with varying degrees of success, and the promising new avenues that might lead to systemic change if the right people get involved. A good nonfiction work will leave you looking at the world differently, and No Fixed Abode does just that–in 2020, we’ve all learned that we need to be a little kinder, and that is especially deserved for the vulnerable people on Britain’s streets.
NO FIXED ABODE is out in the UK on 17 September 2020. I recieved an advance copy of this work through NetGalley, a site that allows book bloggers and other professionals access to upcoming releases in exchange for an honest review. You can learn more about Net Galley here.
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