Homeless people have been part of London for centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, what little provision there was for ‘vagrants’ came from charities or the often harsh regime of Victorian Poor Law institutions.
A vivid picture of life for the homeless in London was published in 1903. ‘The People of the Abyss’ recounted the experiences of Jack London, an American writer who investigated conditions in the East End by disguising himself as a down and out sailor. He experienced Poplar workhouse, or ‘the spike’, as the shelter of last resort was known. He also experienced being ‘on the doss’, finding a bed for the night in one of the thousands of overcrowded common lodging houses.
Many preferred to sleep rough rather than submit to the spike or the doss house. ‘The Peg’ was the Salvation Army barracks on Blackfriars Road in Southwark where rough sleepers could turn up on a Sunday morning and, if they were lucky, be given a free breakfast. In the winter of 1910 it was estimated that 2,747 people were sleeping rough in London. After the First World War, many former servicemen, particularly those who were disabled, were reduced to begging on the streets.
The Second World War introduced a new cause of homelessness. Bomb damage made an estimated one in six of Greater London’s population homeless at some point. Some Londoners resorted to squatting as a way of finding a home, and from then on squatting continued to thrive in London. By the 1970s, the 30,000 squatters in London included the citizens of the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia, otherwise known as Freston Road, Notting Dale.
Homelessness continued to be a vexed problem in London. In 1968, 37% of the homeless population of England and Wales could be found in inner London. In 1966 the television drama ‘Cathy Come Home’ depicted a working-class single mother whose family life gradually disintegrates because of her homelessness. The programme had an enormous impact on public opinion and led to the formation of the housing charities Shelter and Crisis.
Other national charities for the homeless sprang from the particular problems in the capital, which tends to attract young runaways and those who choose to ‘drop out’. Centrepoint was founded in 1969 to provide a night shelter for homeless teenagers in Soho. In the 1990s the magazine The Big Issue caught the imagination of the public with its slogan ‘helping the homeless help themselves’. The magazine is sold on the streets by the homeless, who keep the money they earn.
By the end of the 20th century, national and local government in London had become more active than ever in tackling homelessness and the personal problems associated with it, though the reasons why people take to the street continued to shift. In 1998, 29.6 thousand households were living in temporary accommodation, having been accepted as homeless by the London boroughs. The numbers of rough sleepers in central London remains difficult to calculate.