The other night, I encountered* a homeless man named Ian chilling on the sidewalk outside a branch of NatWest with his bull terrier, Tyson. He greeted me in friendly fashion as I walked up and did not ask for my spare change.
This may sound ridiculous, or condescending, or both, but that fact had me asking him if I could give him some money – I didn’t want to offend his pride. He said yes rather appreciatively, so I gave him all the cash I had on me, and as I was in no hurry to be anywhere, I sat down next to him for a bit of a chat.
We talked for a while about Tyson and the fact that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. Ian clearly loved his dog, and Tyson was as good-natured a pet as I’ve ever encountered. He sniffed my hand for a bit, then came over to lean on me in that way dogs do so I could rub his back.
Our conversation eventually led to how this man had ended up with two blankets outside of the NatWest, and it was a sorry tale indeed. He had lost his council home when his wife had left with their son – single men are automatically bumped to the bottom of the social housing queue. He was turned away from several shelters – homeless people without drugs or drink problems are at the bottom of shelters’ priority list. Unable to find a legitimate place to sleep, he had taken to spending his nights in car parks and loading docks when he couldn’t beg enough during the day to hire a spot in a hostel, though even that was difficult because most of the hostels don’t allow dogs. When he did manage to beg sufficiently during the day, the police sometimes arrested him for begging, and he was forced to spend his takings on court fines.
That day, he told me, he’d been trying to acquire enough money to buy a sleeping bag – though not by begging, which was why he hadn’t asked me for my change. He was hoping for people’s unprompted generosity, and hampered by the fact that he couldn’t explain his need, for fear of being arrested, unless somebody actually asked him.
‘What about work?’ I asked him.
‘I’m looking,’ he answered, ‘but I don’t have an address. Nobody wants to hire someone who can’t even give a shelter as their address.’
‘What a perverse situation,’ I said, and he nodded in agreement. ‘But there’s an election on,’ I added, aware this was small comfort. ‘You have the vote, you can try to vote for people who will fix that stuff.’
‘I can’t,’ said Ian. ‘You can’t vote if you don’t have an address. And I wouldn’t vote for any of them anyway. I’m tired of politicians saying they help people when all they ever do is make things worse.’
We talked for a little while longer, and I told him I wished there were more I could have done for him. Even as I said it, I was aware of how feeble that statement was. I could have given him more money – enough for him to buy a sleeping bag the next day. Enough to make him comfortable for food and drink for a few days at least, provided nobody robbed him in the night. Had we been anywhere near a shop, I would have bought him some food myself there and then, as I’ve done for other homeless people. And all of that would have helped at least a little bit.
But it wouldn’t have gotten him into a shelter, or found him a job, or protected him from police who find it useful to arrest beggars. And it certainly wouldn’t have restored the franchise to him, the franchise which every British person treats as a natural right. This most vulnerable of individuals, because he has no home, is denied even the tiniest bit of power the vote brings with it. That vote, which so many people have but choose not to exercise, is denied to Ian and people like him because they have no home.
I know he said he probably wouldn’t have used it anyway. I’m also aware that he could have been lying to me through his teeth about his circumstances (though for what it’s worth, I don’t think he was). But even in the midst of all the perverse incentives this man was facing, his disenfranchisement struck me as the most significant. There are hundreds of thousands of homeless British people. Presumably many of those are prevented from exercising this most basic privilege of citizenship.
People told me afterward that the electoral register is linked to addresses to prevent voter fraud. I’m sure that works really well, what with people who have more than one address getting more than one vote. Nevertheless, I find I can’t really countenance a system of electoral fraud prevention that effectively restricts the suffrage of a giant bunch of British citizens.
Can anybody explain to me how this squares with the whole ‘social justice’ thing? Does anybody know if the electoral commission, or any of the parties, have a plan to fix this, or even consider it an issue?
Or is the British body politic perfectly happy with this property-based ‘universal’ suffrage?**
*In Leicester. I swear.
**Please note that I am not making an argument about who, objectively, should have the vote, or whether it should indeed be somehow rooted in property or other kinds of economic activity.
UPDATE: RC informs me that homeless citizens can register to vote by making a ‘declaration of local connection’ at their local Electoral Registration Office. This seems reasonable, but it is clearly not common knowledge amongst the homeless. Also, it occurs to me that people who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered can be liable for a £1000 fine.