Daniel Lavelle’s Powerful Down and Out Exposes the Homelessness Crisis
By Sofia Brizio
Daniel Lavelle is one of the UK’s most talented investigative journalists. With an MA in Journalism from Goldsmiths, University of London, he is an important voice writing for The Guardian and others on topics such as mental health, homelessness and culture. In 2017, he won The Guardian’s Hugo Young Award. From this brief description of his amazing achievements, one would never think that Lavelle spent most of his childhood in a broken social care system and experienced homelessness when leaving it at age nineteen. In his new book, he sheds light on the worrying extent of the homelessness crisis and discusses possible solutions with the insight of lived experience. Part memoir, part investigation into Britain’s broken social care and housing system, Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis (Headline, 26 May 2022) is a jarring yet much-needed account of contemporary British society.
Ironically, I’m writing this after a morning spent trying to reason with my landlord over an unfair rent increase. I’m lucky enough to have a family who can support me so that rent increases are unlikely to affect me in the short term, but after reading Lavelle’s book, I can’t help but wonder what would become of me, an immigrant disabled woman, if I didn’t have my own support network. Daniel’s investigation uncovers a system that not only lets the most vulnerable slip through the cracks, but appears to be intentionally designed to do so, normalising homelessness in contemporary Britain. One of the most striking examples of this, that stuck with me from the pages of Down and Out, is the “homeless vending machine” that was installed in Nottingham by the charity Action Against Hunger in 2017, providing food and other essentials for people sleeping rough. No doubt, the charities that devise these schemes have good intentions, but they rarely get to the root of the problem because, as Lavelle eloquently puts it, it would be “bad for business.”
Moreover, getting to the root of the problem would mean redesigning society completely. Throughout the book, Lavelle opens up about his ADHD diagnosis in childhood and how a school system that didn’t cater to his needs, among other things, caused trauma. People become, and often stay homeless, because the education system doesn’t work, because there is no mental health support and because housing isn’t treated as the fundamental human right it should be. The criminalisation and stigma around homelessness are also contributing factors to not enacting concrete solutions. By telling his and other peoples’ stories, Lavelle explains honestly and wittily that homelessness could happen to anyone, and there needs to be a wider conversation about it – from psychological support, to the role of charities, to basic rights for tenants.
This book is timely and necessary in a post-pandemic world where life has become unsustainable especially for vulnerable groups: between the climate crisis, the difficult job market, the increased cost of living and the state of current affairs, Down and Out reminds us that we should care and we should question what the government and society more broadly are doing. And, it was the pandemic that finally alerted the UK government to the seriousness of the homelessness crisis. The Everyone In scheme, implemented during the first lockdown to house rough sleepers, helped 37,430 people find temporary accommodation and, in 2021, over 26,000 people were able to move into permanent accommodation thanks to the scheme. This shows that reforming the support and social care systems around housing is possible. Understanding the causes and significance of homelessness and recognising the role of austerity in worsening it are the first steps towards effective, long-term solutions.
Most importantly, Down and Out forces us to think about our own biases and prejudices, and about the need to change our attitudes and practices as a society in order to end inequality, because what benefits the vulnerable ultimately benefits everyone. It is a book that everyone should read and reread, because, to quote the author, "most of the hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the UK aren’t suffering at the sharp end of this crisis. They don’t have addictions or mental illnesses; most just need a secure and stable roof over their heads … Poverty isn’t just a consequence of moral vice, something that only happens to shirkers and junkies who refuse to take responsibility. The fact is, homelessness can happen to anyone … all it takes is a job loss, a benefit sanction, a relationship breakdown, illness or bereavement, and you could be leaving behind an empty doorway".
Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis is published by Headline Publishing Group and can be purchased in bookshops or online.