The Guardian

The Guardian September 12, 2001


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

No house

Groups concerned with the plight of the homeless in London were less 
than amused when a Dutch travel company last month started advertising four 
day stints of sleeping rough on the streets of the English capital as a 
novel new type of "holiday"!

In return for paying the company, Kamstra, L300($760) each, 50 suckers  
er, tourists  are to be dropped off at various street corners scattered 
across London, with a musical instrument or a sketch pad, and left to "live 
like a tramp in London", according to the ads.

Travel companies have always trivialised poverty, portraying it as 
picturesque, colourful or even amusing. Tourists are encouraged to take 
advantage of poor people to obtain "bargains".

But the poverty has usually been on display from the comfort of a 
rubberneck bus, or at worst, a stroll within easy walking distance of the 
sanctuary of your comfortable hotel.

Activists for the homeless, for whom being forced to sleep in the street is 
no holiday, are aghast at this latest trivialisation of the plight of the 
poor. How can you campaign against the iniquities of homelessness while 
travel agencies promote it as some sort of "lark".

The police are probably not amused either: 50 or so foreigners sleeping in 
doorways is the kind of incitement to thuggery that most police forces 
would take a dim view of.

The large number of people living under bridges, in cardboard boxes or in 
doorways in major cities in developed capitalist countries is a telling 
indictment of the failure of capitalism to meet the most basic of people's 
needs  for food and shelter.

So too is the demoralisation, cynicism and desperation that manifests 
itself in street assaults, muggings, bag snatchings and bashings. As a 
spokesperson for the British homeless charity the Rough Sleepers Unit 
commented (with masterly understatement): "The streets are an extremely 
dangerous and unpleasant place in which to sleep and definitely not a 
holiday destination."

* * *
Wendy House
I wonder how many Guardian readers had a "Wendy house" when they were children? Not many, I suspect. An indoor cubby-house to play in and house your favourite toys required a large rumpus or children's room. Today, in Britain, they are trying to market something not much bigger then a Wendy house as suitable "affordable" accommodation for city workers. Of course, the capitalist market recognises that if people cannot afford decent housing, then there must be a market for sub-standard housing! In Australia, an increasing number of people live in caravan parks, either in a caravan with annexe or in a "relocatable home". Few people live in caravan parks because they like the "informal" lifestyle. For most it's sheer economic necessity: it's all they can afford. That caravan parks are proliferating is a reflection of the disappearing possibilities for owning or even renting your own house or flat. In the US, richest capitalist country of all, trailer parks strung out along the main arteries make up a substantial part of almost every town or city. (Curiously, they figure in very few US films or TV shows.) In Japan, another rich capitalist country, executives ("salarymen") rent rooms in town for weeknights that are little bigger than portaloos turned on their side. And now some London architects have proposed to the city's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, that the solution to the capital's housing problem is to provide what they are pleased to call "micro flats". These factory-produced modular housing units will measure five metres by five (16 feet by 16) the size of a reasonable lounge room) and by dint of cunning design and using small components apparently contain "a double bedroom, living room with kitchen, shower and balcony" (balcony?). The proponents of this plan are quite blunt about their target market: the units are to be aimed at nurses, teachers, bus drivers and other workers essential to the running of the capital but whose low wages will never allow them to acquire a real home. Making workers live in one room, no matter how you partition it into smaller "roomlets", is not a step forward in human progress. I have no doubt none of the architects involved see themselves ever living in such "housing". Good enough apparently for common workers, however.

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