Middle-class homelessness on the rise in UK

Being middle-class and homeless is a trend that is currently plaguing the streets of Britain and is escalating almost as quickly as the recession.

The common image of a homeless person in Britain is somebody who is unshaven, dirty and old, clutching a bottle of whisky on a park bench. But as the recession forces many people out of work, homelessness in the UK has experienced a radical makeover: today, young, educated and middle class people increasingly make up the ranks of those living on the streets.

Homeless organizations across the UK are witnessing a massive surge in the numbers of those seeking help who, due to a string of unforeseen misfortune, in most cases caused by the global economic downturn, have been forced onto the streets. And as the need for public assistance increases, charitable donations, which are experiencing their own financial time of troubles, are failing to keep up with the demand.

Tracey Roberts, 31, went from the heights of the corporate career ladder to its lowest rung practically overnight. With a degree in mathematics from Birmingham University, Roberts quickly secured a job with a finance firm in 1999. Eventually, she worked her up to the position of regional manager. With a £32,000 pound salary and her future prospects looking bright, Ms Roberts signed on the dotted line for a three-bedroom semi-detached house in a suburb of Birmingham. But in January things took a turn for the worse. After being abruptly made redundant, Roberts was unable to keep up with her monthly mortgage payments and soon had her house repossessed. Out of pride and embarrassment, Roberts did not go to friends or family for help. Instead, Tracey Roberts turned to the streets, where she has been living for six weeks.

“The worse experience to date was when I took shelter on a particularly wet night in the doorway of a restaurant I not only used to enjoy visiting with my friends but also took clients to wine and dine,” Roberts recalls with restrained emotion. “It was very late at night and although the restaurant was closed a man who worked there called out, “hey, sorry love, but you can’t sleep here.’

“That was when the reality of my situation really kicked in.”

Unfortunately, Ms Roberts’ story is not an isolated case, but rather part of a tragic trend in Britain that is pushing many middle class and professional people onto the streets. Hostels are reporting an influx of formerly “well-to-do” men and women with no mental health problems, but who are rapidly loosing self esteem and motivation seeking refuge and a place to sleep.

Another casualty of the global crisis, Matt Potts lost his job with an insurance company. But unlike the thousands who are living just above the margins, Potts managed to pull himself out of the gutter and got a job with a government-funded program dedicated to the restoration of hostels for homeless people across the UK. Subsequently, Potts is now the director of homelessness for the Salvation Army.

“Of course it’s a worrying time: utility bills are going up and charitable giving is going down,” Potts said. “We are seeing a lot more requests for food and clothes parcels, but we are expecting to see the real effect of the recession in about a year. It’s like there is the top of the cliff and there is the bottom and at the moment a lot of people are clinging on to the top by their fingernails.”

But it’s not just the ‘jobless with mortgage’ category that is in jeopardy of being suddenly thrust onto Britain’s streets. Although homeowners (who, by definition, usually mean a mortgage owner as well) seem to be the most vulnerable, those in rented accommodations are also at risk.

“What is also becoming common is that people in private, rented accommodations are unaware that their landlords are not keeping up mortgage payments until a bailiffs letter turns up,” says Nikki Homewood, the director of homeless and complex needs at the Brighton Housing Trust.

Charities looking for charity

As well as having to cope with the growing number of people requiring refuge at shelters, the economical slump means that charities that assist the needy are now receiving substantially less donations.

According to a recent poll commissioned by the Social Investment Consultancy, business donations to charity organizations are expected to be slashed by almost 500 million pounds this year as a result of the economic downturn. These cutbacks are coming at a time when charities – not to mention the people they assist – need financial help the most. The homelessness charity ‘Shelter’ compiled a study that predicted that the recent collapse in home construction will result in a total housing shortfall in England of nearly 1 million by the year 2020.

Homelessness amongst the formerly well-off is a growing phenomenon that is not confined to Great Britain alone. The UK seems to be taking the problem seriously and set aside £90 million pounds for shelter restoration projects.

But in the United States, where the subprime mortgage crisis was the spark that led to the global meltdown, a growing number of previously affluent professionals are losing house and home at a breathtaking rate (it was reported in March that one out of every five American homeowners owes more on his house than the property is worth). Unlike the freshly unemployed in the UK who are seeking refuge in hostels and shelters, the growing legion of middle class vagabonds in the US are desperately grasping to the last thread of their once prosperous lifestyles by sleeping in their cars, or in tent cities, which are popping up in dozens of cities across the.

This “mobile homeless” phenomenon that has hit America has similar characteristics of the changing face of homelessness in the UK. Reluctance to seek help from families through embarrassment seems to be the consistent feature to why so many educated and “sensible” people end up homeless in two of the richest countries in the world.

David Chaney can be placed into this category when he lost his trucking business and was evicted from his home. Mr Chaney kept his life of living in his car a secret from his son while desperately seeking employment.

“I was lucky enough to have already paid for a year long gym membership,” Chaney said. “Which was probably the most important thing for keeping up appearances.”

With 40,000 houses being repossessed in the UK in 2008, it is little wonder the number of people “roughing it” is on the rise. Although the UK appears to be making an effort to help and assist those finding themselves without a home by building and improving shelters, downsizing from four bedrooms to a solitary sleeping bag looks set to continue to rise as the recession continues. Contrary to popular perceptions of homeless people being from dysfunctional, poverty-stricken families who are scarred by mental health issues and reliant on drugs and alcohol, the most vulnerable in today’s economic crisis are those who confidently took on a mortgage four times their salary to live in a large detached house in a fashionable area, thinking the job they had gone to university for was a job for life.

Like Tracey Roberts, experiencing the humiliation of being used to a life of comfort and “normality” only to have it all unexpectedly snatched from beneath their feet has to be one of the direst consequences of the economic collapse.

Gabrielle Pickard for RT