Today’s blog post is a question and answer with Ross Raisin, a British author, most recently of Waterline, a story of man’s descent into homelessness. This Q&A takes a look at his work and homelessness and perceptions of homelessness in the United Kingdom.
Q: Waterline tells the story of Mick Little, an ordinary man who, after a tragedy, slips into under-employment, then unemployment, then eventually homelessness. What drew you to the topic of homelessness?
A: I was interested in the idea of how a person – any person – could disappear, could fall off the map, even though most people would view his life heretofore as one of security, economic and familial. I was especially interested to make the connection between homelessness and de-industrialization – to think about the long-term (governmental) effects of taking away the heartbeat of a community, where that community has been built around heavy industry such as Mick’s community in Glasgow. What happens to the way people interact with each other, indeed even to the way in which they judge and value themselves, when they are told that their way of life, and the way of life of their ancestors, is worthless? There is of course not a direct correlation between these things and homelessness, but Mick is in many senses a very ‘normal’ homeless person, and these things are part of the fabric of his life, and his detachment from society.
Q: During his time on the streets, Mick has to survive not only the pressing concerns of where to sleep and what to eat, but also how to survive the mind-numbing monotony of days without structure. What sort of research did you do into the lives of the homeless?
I have never experienced homelessness myself, and so have been very careful never to express the idea, either in my writing or my talking about my writing, that I am giving voice to people who have experienced homelessness. It’s surprising how often you get asked it in interviews. The problem with such an attitude is that it immediately places the subject, the homeless person, as not having a voice that is as important as my published author voice, and this is of course wrong and unhelpful. If I am giving voice to anyone, it is to a character, a person, who I have imagined with the same care and thoroughness as I would any of my fictional characters. So I didn’t try to pretend that I could research homelessness. I did though feel a responsibility to be involved in the homelessness charity sector, and to talk to, and get to know people who have known homelessness. This is something that I have been doing for a number of years now, in running a writing group in a hostel. Never for research, or material, but for the enjoyment of it, as much as anything else.
Q: Do you think homelessness is viewed the same way in the UK, where you live, as it is in the US?
A: Certainly homelessness is cracked down on even harder in the US than it is in the UK. Because it is illegal in most American towns and cities to urinate in a public space (even though public toilets don’t seem too common in most places I’ve been to), to sit, lie down, or sleep in public – all of this means that to be homeless is effectively illegal. The dehumanization of the homeless by law must surely have a knock-on effect in how the public at large view such people. And especially when part of the practical effect of harassing individuals is to make them group together – so it is my understanding that in America there are more tent cities than in the UK.
Q: Can you talk about Missing People and your work with them?
A: Missing People got in touch with me after the book was published, to ask if I could be involved with them, helping to promote their work. The main thrust of this is to raise public awareness of their Missing Rights campaign, which aims to improve the rights of families whose loved ones go missing. In the UK, if your house is burgled, you automatically get signposted to emotional and practical support; if your mother, or son, or whoever, go missing, you don’t. So the campaign is for such things as: that family members get directed to Missing People; that a single point of contact within the police force is set up for each family; that bodies of the deceased get automatically cross-referenced with missing people files. One big strand of the campaign looks like it’s having an effect – as the government has announced that it is to change the law regarding the Presumption of Death Act in England and Wales, something that previously has been a huge problem for the families of missing people presumed dead but not in life insurance, or mortgage, terms.
Q: What about your work with Unite, the UK trade union working for improved rights for workers in the restaurant industry? Do you see a connection between homelessness and workers’ rights?
Of course. Many people in the restaurant industry get given a very tough time by their employers. I have been working with Unite on a long-running Fair Tips campaign, which has had the aim of making sure that restaurants give service charge and tips to the waiters, rather than find ways of retaining it for themselves. Hotels, such as the one that Mick finds himself in, can often be places that a person can lose him or herself in, and lose a sense of what their rights are, and that they are being paid under the Minimum Wage. Divide and Rule tactics help some employers to keep their staff disconnected, from each other, and from an awareness of their rights. Obviously this can play into homelessness, both practically, and also as a mindset or, at worst, an acceptance that you have no rights.
Q: To what extent does bereavement play a part in Mick becoming homeless?
First and foremost, I see this as a novel about grief. As with a lot of people who become homeless, there are often several factors at work which combine to create a tipping point, a moment of crisis. So it is often not simply one big life event – like bereavement, but it might be bereavement together with a historical background of family instability (either recent or far back), institutionalization, physical or mental illness, or substance use or reliance, or any other myriad combined factors.
In Mick’s case, the catalyst is bereavement – with, in the background, a more subtle, social bereavement of de-industrialization. That – the effect of the decline of shipbuilding – is quite explicitly suggested in the novel – but as for other things that have occurred in the character’s past, those things are more for the reader to infer and imagine for themselves.
Q: What impact is the current economic climate having on homelessness?
Even official figures show that street homelessness has gone up by over 20% over the last year [in the UK]; the number of families put up by councils in emergency bed and breakfast accommodation has gone up by a third; and none of the figures even begin to address the hugely increased numbers of hidden homeless, who are squatting or sofa-surfing. Pretty much all homelessness services have reported turning away increased numbers of people because of a lack of bed spaces. Cuts to these services, at the very same time as the government is also making massive cuts to housing benefit, disability allowance, child benefit, public sector jobs, the National Health System, mean that the increased number of homeless are meeting with a decreased capacity for aiding them. Young people are being affected especially, partly because of changes to the age threshold of single housing benefit, that mean that thousands are starting to lose their accommodation. It is a bleak picture, looking even worse after the recent budget announcements.