“Where does he keep his toothbrush, Mummy?” I always remember my eldest child’s first reaction, when a toddler, to seeing a young man sleeping in a doorway. This was King’s Cross in north London in the mid-80s. Overnight, it seemed that homelessness had become visible. Young people whose benefits had been cut, and who could no longer live independently of their parents, were on the streets. Until then, I had not seen beggars on the streets of London. I had seen them when I was hitching around Europe. The beggars of Lisbon shocked me: Portugal was in a terrible state then, with empty shops and desperately poor people.
I had made London my home, so I had to do that thing that everyone does: turn a blind eye to the lost, addicted, abused, ill people everywhere, who cannot be given money in case they spend it on “the wrong things”. We harden ourselves.
To live in a city is to turn a blind eye – although, increasingly, I have seen rough sleepers in small seaside towns, so everyone is learning the skill of pretending the homeless are invisible. One of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet colleagues, George Young, observed in the 80s: “The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera.” Now the homeless are what you step over on pretty much any night out in central London. Other kinds of homeless people live on the edges of the city in tents, subways, sheds, or 20 to a room. These are the “hidden homeless”. Sofa-surfing sounds like a lifestyle choice, but many live in B&Bs, hostels or in severely overcrowded conditions and remain unseen. Nowadays, you can be seen and not heard – or, more commonly, unseen and totally unheard.
But we saw the fire at Grenfell Tower. This hellish incinerator of hope can’t be unseen. There is no escaping it, and no discussion of the housing crisis will be the same again. Even if they clad this tower in platinum, Grenfell and what it means should never be rendered invisible.
This is why the fuss about the empty properties in the London borough in which Grenfell is situated matter. The ghost mansions had also become invisible to us, somehow. Is it OK to buy a huge property and know it will increase in value without the hassle of renting it? The Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, have all condemned the fact that there are 1,652 vacant properties in Kensington and Chelsea while, seven weeks after the fire, Grenfell tenants have still not been rehoused. These vacant homes are owned by businessmen, oligarchs and “foreign royalty”.