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United Kingdom

new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

Who’s hiding?
The best excuse for doing nothing about homelessness or racism is that you
didn’t know it was happening – or that it was ‘hidden’. Just before her untimely
death homelessness worker Carolyn Ye Myint produced a report that left
no more room for excuses. David Ransom reports.

Who's hiding?

We used to believe – or was it just hope? – that uncovering evidence of injustice was the first essential step towards getting it put right. When I worked at No Fixed Abode with the disregarded homeless single people of the East End of London we told ourselves that if we made a case and turned up statistically armed to meetings with movers and shakers, then something useful would happen.

So we often employed the notion of ‘hidden’ homelessness – of homeless people who had somehow been ‘overlooked’ by officialdom. The implication was, I suppose, that there had been some kind of careless oversight which would be promptly corrected. At least with our evidence we could pre-empt any cynical appeal for ‘more research’ – the penultimate recourse of the rogue in search of a convenient excuse to do nothing.

When Carolyn Ye Myint arrived in our office in 1989 the banal fantasies of Thatcher’s ‘property-owning democracy’ were still bleaching the political agenda in Britain. Carolyn began work with the huge ethnic communities of the East End of London – dominated by some 35,000 Bangladeshis, but including 8,000 Chinese or Vietnamese. There was also a small but extraordinarily vibrant community of Somalis, some of whose ancestors had arrived as seafarers generations earlier and who were now joined by people fleeing more recent catastrophes in Somalia.

In Britain ‘single homeless’ is a euphemism for the ‘undeserving poor’. In other words the migrant workers and unconsidered casualties of society whom the welfare state never had the courage to protect. Stereotyped as alcoholic or crazy Celts all too visible on inner-city streets, homeless people without children more often convened in the dingy waiting rooms of indifferent housing authorities who didn’t even bother to record their presence.

Such people were (and still are) local kids, people without work or viable families, sleeping on the floors of friends or relatives, excluded by the benefits system, dispensable casualties of economic recession, vulnerable and angry, often plagued by an overwhelming coincidence of catastrophes: a whole new generation of domestic refugees. A quite disproportionately large number of them came from ethnic communities. Their destitution was, in the absence of any case to the contrary, prima facie evidence of discrimination.

But add the label ‘undeserving poor’ to the victims of racism and, unless you are very careful, you promote the notion of an ‘underclass’. By definition such a class is powerless, even in its own mind: a suitable case for charity, condescension, contempt. A late twentieth-century reincarnation of Thatcher’s eternal nineteenth-century values.

Turning this situation around looked to me at the time like the nearest thing one could devise to an impossible task. But Carolyn set to work undaunted. Bright, sharp and determined, her gentle manner only rarely betrayed the strength of her convictions, formed in part no doubt by the experience of her family, some of whom remain caught in the waking nightmare of Burma’s current dictatorship.

Within a few months I had left to begin work with the NI. From time to time I wondered how she was getting on. But the alarming truth is that years of work with homeless people in the East End of London slipped slowly behind me and beyond my immediate horizons. Then I was given a draft copy of her final report and it all came back into view again, sharper and clearer than I had seen it before.

‘If their friends come to visit I have to sit in the kitchen until they have gone,’ one homeless youngster staying with friends tells Carolyn. ‘I am a nuisance to them and do not know when they will ask me to leave. I try to stay out until as late as possible, and as often as possible, to keep out of their way. I cannot read because I do not want to burn their light at night. Plus their baby is always crying. During the winter the sitting room was cold and I had to sleep with my jumpers on. I am not blaming them. I am really very grateful to them… But I cannot see help coming from anywhere… The days ahead are bleak… I dread the future.’

Young people who dread the future are, it seems to me, the worst possible indictment of a society that has taken their hopes from them almost before they have formed. Their world is not full of extravagant racist gestures, abuse and violence – though there is no lack of that, either. It is quiet, relentless and shocking: a world where dedicated, non-racist people working for non-governmental projects nonetheless find themselves presiding over a racist system of discrimination. All this after a generation of ‘equal opportunity’ in Britain.

‘When I began this research,’ Carolyn writes, ‘I would often tell people it was a project about “hidden homelessness” in [the East London borough of] Tower Hamlets. No-one was hiding: they were making as loud a racket as they knew how. But those who are in positions of power in our society are refusing to listen, refusing to see.’

No-one can now say that they did not know. No one who has read this report can talk about ‘hidden homelessness’ or even ‘hidden racism’ again. Anyone who has not read it and is in a position of power over the lives of the people it describes is guilty of neglect.

The strange and terrible fact about Carolyn’s work is that at the precise moment when she completed it she died. Her death was sudden and totally unexpected. She was still only in her twenties. One might react to this, I suppose, by reflecting on the tragedy and the pointlessness of her death. Or one might reflect on what she might have done had she stayed alive. This is not ‘hidden’ – she made it perfectly clear. The point is to change things.

Who’s hiding? A report into ‘non-priority homelessness’ amongst people from black and ethnic communities in Tower Hamlets by Carolyn Ye Myint is published by No Fixed Abode, The Brady Centre, 192-196 Hanbury Street, London E1 5HU.

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New Internationalist issue 241 magazine cover This article is from the March 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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