Homelessness is rife in the UK and getting worse year after year. 36 people are made homeless every day - a shameful statistic that the Tory government just ignores.
Although homelessness in general is often brought up in the mainstream media, there is one aspect that remains largely ignored. The murky conditions of hostels are a harrowing example of what austerity does to working-class lives.
I work with young people needing help in a northern city that has suffered the same toxic blend of deindustrialisation, vicious cuts, and a growing housing crisis as so many others. An alarming number of these youth are - or have been - homeless. In some ways their accounts of hostel life vary wildly, such is the lottery of these establishments. Other elements of their stories are painfully similar, however.
Not one person has told me they feel safe in a homeless hostel. Some fear the slide back into addiction, as they find themselves surrounded by substance abuse and networks of dealers who prey on the most vulnerable residents. Others know the risk of sexual assault is dramatically higher if they enter a hostel for the night.
Theft, intimidation, dangerous weapons, illness and infection: if this is beginning to sound Victorian, do not be surprised to hear that one person I know was turfed out on 21 December. They had fallen behind on their fees.
Entering a hostel with anything worth holding onto is a risk. Money and keepsakes are just the start. One person told me how their medication was confiscated having been mistaken for drugs. Others have lost the only photographs of loved ones they own. Added to the factors that led to their homelessness – family breakdowns, spiralling rents, zero-hours contracts – the loss of a cherished memento can crush even the most resilient spirits.
Many hostel residents have moved cities, to escape a desperate situation at home or on the promise of work. As a result, they have no-one to go to when the worst happens.
Several of those I try and help have chosen the streets over another night in a hostel. This is often an act of self-preservation. Suicide rates are chillingly high in hostels, as in the wider homeless community. The majority of those I’ve spoken to have either hurt themselves whilst taking refuge or considered suicide. Capitalism is killing us, and the most vulnerable are among its first victims.
So why are hostels in particular so lethal? And does it have to be like this?
It’s important to understand how hostels operate. They are not necessarily run for profit, but many do charge rent for a room. Some offer a fixed meal schedule for an extra fee. Taking money from the homeless: this is the disgusting system we live under.
If run properly, a hostel could theoretically provide important respite for a person in crisis. But too often they are regimented and uncaring, with exhausted staff who have never received proper training or support.
The high turnover of residents coupled with a lack of documentation makes hostels ripe for predators, whether they are using the place or working there. Abuse, neglect and despair is a potent cocktail for a vulnerable teenager in a strange new place, surrounded by dangerous people.
Hostels exist to fill the void left by a lack of available housing. The winding down of council housing has led to ever-longer waiting lists. One Tory MP had more ovens installed in his kitchen than affordable houses built in his borough last year.
Enough homes already exist for every single person in the UK. But landlords and agencies without any kind of conscience keep them empty rather than lowering rates and ending homelessness.
We could quickly rid society of these sickening conditions, by taking unoccupied properties into public ownership and undertaking a sweeping building programme of safe and affordable housing.
But this will never be done by the Tories and the fat-cat bosses they represent. That is why we need a socialist Labour government, with an economic plan involving the nationalisation of the banks, land, large management firms, and big construction companies.
A socialist housing programme - guaranteeing every single person a place to live - would be the mark of a civilised society. But this is not possible under capitalism.
Our generation’s future is being stolen by this wretched system we live under - and by the parasitic few who live on a different planet from that of the stolen photos, confiscated meds, and crushing depression that hostel life entails.