Bell on ... why more should be done to help rough sleepers

As the nights draw in and chill winds blow I have flashbacks to my childhood.

I still have my ration book from the time when sugar and biscuits were sold loose and you were someone if you knew someone who owned a car. Safe at home, my only terror was a knock on the door because facing me might be the tramp who lived in the nearby park.

He knew to knock on our door because my mam would fill his billycan with hot sweet tea. He might even get some dippy bread in the gravy or a fried egg sandwich. He knew not to call later because my dad would chase him away. These were the days before stress counselling. Anyway, my dad used to get the Sunday Express delivered.

The tramp would shelter in the doorway clutching his sacks and long stick.

Brave Tommy who had helped beat the Wehrmacht, now a mane of tangled hair with eyes staring out from a dirty weatherbeaten face. His stooped frame wrapped in a filthy army trenchcoat stinking to high heaven. Home is the hero? If he looked as though he had been pulled through a hedge, it was only because that was his nightly routine. Tramps were a common sight then and objects of fright and fascination for small boys.

The events of more than 50 years ago came back to me just a fortnight ago. My daughter was exercising her dog on open space in Hemel Hempstead when Holly the labrador disappeared into the bushes and started barking.

She had discovered a couple sleeping rough. The Simon Community has recently counted more than 300 rough sleepers in the inner London boroughs. Yet we have become almost immune to the sight of cardboard cities. The churches and charities on their nightly soup runs will tell you that there are rough sleepers all around us, even in the leafy suburbs. It is just that we blank them out.

The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was one of the pillars of the welfare state. Compensation and betterment would capture windfall profits and return cash to the community to pay for what we now term "infrastructure".

Having largely abandoned the neatness and simplicity of this approach, we have struggled to come forward with reasonable payments, tariffs or supplements for the modern era. Throw in the right to buy and constraints to funding social housing and some would say that we are the architects of our own present difficulties.

My daughter went back to the rough sleepers that night and gave them hot food. She is my mother's grand-daughter. But why 60 years after Beveridge and Silkin are we in this state? What will Kate Barker's final report say to the man and woman on the street?

- Graeme Bell is chair of trustees at the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation and a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association.


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