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6 min read

The rough sleeper: an icon of injustice

Each rough sleeper is a raw illustration of injustice. On an awareness day for both homelessness and mental health, Jon Kuhrt reflects on the root causes and yet sees hope.

Jon Kuhrt is CEO of Hope into Action, a homelessness charity. He is a former government adviser on how faith groups address rough sleeping.

A black and white close up of the weather-beaten and wrinkled face and beard of a homeless man.
Portrait of a homeless man in Prague.
Ales Dusa on Unsplash.

In 2016, five-year Brooke Blair became an internet sensation after a video of her berating Prime Minister Theresa May went viral. As she put it, she was ‘very angry’: 

“Yesterday night, I was out on the streets, and saw a hundred and a million of homeless people. I saw one with floppy ears, I saw loads. You should be out there, Theresa May. You should be, biscuits! Hot chocolate, sandwiches, you should be building houses. Look, I'm only five-years-old. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm saving up money but there'll never be enough. You've got the pot of money, spend some and help people.” 

The video struck a chord because a young girl was passionately expressing the distress, anger, sympathy and bewilderment that so many feel when seeing people sleep rough in such a wealthy country.   

The image of a rough sleeper is an icon of poverty. And just as religious icons represent the sacred, so does each person sleeping rough. 

Each rough sleeper is a raw illustration of injustice and social breakdown.  The structural issues of poverty and inequality crystalize in the plight of a vulnerable person huddling in a doorway. In them we see an amalgam of both political failure and personal tragedy. 

It's personal because we know that each person has a different story about what led them onto the streets. We will always be moved far more by a person than any statistic.  

The image of a rough sleeper is an icon of poverty. And just as religious icons represent the sacred, so does each person sleeping rough. A precious human of infinite worth, imprinted with the divine, living in destitution. And just as restoring fragile religious icons is a specialist job, so the task of restoring those who have been homeless is often complex and intricate work. 

Today, 10 October, is both World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day. The two are closely intertwined. It’s a good day to reflect on the nature of homelessness and what we can do in the work of restoration. 

We cannot simply remove the tip of the iceberg without addressing the deeper issues ... The water is getting colder and the iceberg is growing. 

Rough sleeping is just the tip of a far bigger homelessness iceberg. It receives the most attention because it’s visible and visceral. But it is just a small fraction of the total number of people who have no settled home who exist underneath the waterline: those sleeping in temporary shelters, hostels and squats, sofa-surfing or placed in B&Bs. 

It’s the visibility of rough sleeping that gives it political capital.  Whilst in power, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all launched high profile initiatives with ambitious targets to reduce or end rough sleeping. 

In 2018, I was seconded from the Christian charity I was working for into the Civil Service as a specialist adviser on rough sleeping. In the four years I spent in this role I worked under four different Prime Ministers and six different homelessness ministers. Despite some significant progress made before and during the pandemic, the numbers of people sleeping rough and those in temporary accommodation are starting to rise again.  

We cannot simply remove the tip of the iceberg without addressing the deeper issues of poverty that it is connected to. The reality is that we have a deep housing crisis in this country. The water is getting colder and the iceberg is growing. 

But the challenge is that rough sleeping and homelessness are genuinely complex problems.  Politics and economics provide some of the answers but not all. After thirty years of working with people who are homeless, these are the key issues which lie behind homelessness. 

Poverty of resources 

The most obvious cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Housing is a resource which is not distributed fairly, and this inequity creates intense pressure and vulnerability. All of this is compounded by austerity, funding cuts and benefit sanctions which have withdrawn support services for vulnerable groups. 

As London has become an international playground for the uber rich, many new housing developments are simply investment opportunities. Often people sleep rough outside accommodation no one lives in. It is a stark picture of the failure of the housing market. 

This aspect of homelessness is the one that government can do most about. Brooke Blair was fundamentally right – Prime Ministers need to build more houses for those who need them.   

A poverty of relationships 

But homelessness is more than house-lessness.  Homes are more than bricks and mortar: they are places of relationships. 

And if you talk with anyone sleeping rough, you are likely to hear of relationships that have gone wrong with partners or with their wider family. Some are fleeing abuse or domestic violence; some have been perpetrators. Relational problems are often a key source of regret and shame; where people carry their deepest scars. 

In our concern for people’s rights to the resources they deserve, we should not lose sight of where humans find true meaning and fulfilment. We all have a deep need to know and be known, to love and to be loved.  We cannot get away from the importance of relationships and a sense of belonging. 

A poverty of identity 

Finally, and most deeply, is the issue of people’s inner identity. The essential relationship that everyone has with themselves.    

The rise in mental health problems are symptoms of a vulnerability of our inner well-being.  For people affected by homelessness, their experiences of exclusion and trauma are both a root cause and an on-going reason for their mental fragility.  

And the addictions to alcohol or drugs which are common to many rough sleepers are deeply connected to these psychological vulnerabilities.  Drugs become a form of self-medication to ameliorate pain.  And however negative, the lifestyle required to maintain addictions can be relatively exciting and can provide each give a day a clear goal. It can be hard to leave such an identity and embark on a demanding journey of recovery.

Homelessness doesn’t just end in a flat. It truly ends in community and connection.

So, in short, homelessness is far more than house-lessness. Houses are a key resource but homes are primarily places of relationships and identity. And the restoration of these cannot be just done by the government. It requires a whole community. 

Thirteen years ago, a Christian couple in Peterborough, Ed and Rachel Walker chose to invest their own inheritance into a house for people who were homeless.  The idea inspired others: it was simple and innovative: encourage people with wealth to invest in homes for those who are poor. And each home was attached to a local church which provides friendship and support and a critical sense of community.  

This is the roots of Hope into Action where I now work. We are now a national charity with 106 homes across the country and last year we housed over 400 people. Our model is a holistic response to the types of poverty I have described.  

Our tenants are provided with the resource of a great house where they feel safe and secure. And this is combined with relationships with housemates and the support of local church volunteers. And our whole focus is to empower our tenants to find a more positive identity: whether through purposeful work, on-going recovery or through exploring faith. Last year, fifty percent of our tenants chose to engage in church activities and six took the step to be baptised. 

Homelessness doesn’t just end in a flat. It truly ends in community and connection. In our work we see justice and generosity in how resources are shared, compassion in the relationships that are formed, and hope on which people can rebuild a positive identity. Just as a lone rough sleeper is an icon of poverty, each of our tenants is a symbol of hope. 

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Politics
10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.