In the heart of London’s theater district opposite the Savoy Hotel, with rooms for up to $800 a night, scores of people are lingering patiently on a balmy summer evening.
The snaking line near a branch of Coutts & Co., the bankers to the Queen, displays a portrait of contemporary London: men and women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, some speaking English and some Polish amid a cacophony of other languages. Some are dressed smartly in shirts and trousers, others in jeans and baseball caps. One man is wearing a food delivery company uniform.
But they’re not there for a deal on tickets to a West End show or a table at Gordon Ramsay’s joint. They’re there for food handouts from a local charity.
Images of rich aside poor, homelessness and soup kitchens are hardly new in a city that inspired Charles Dickens and George Orwell, or even unique among major urban centers across the world. But in Britain today, they reflect a society under increasing strain as Brexit – the relentless quest to leave the European Union – drains the country’s political energy and focus from confronting other pressing matters.
Government policy making has been paralyzed, unable to address the causes of the disillusionment that led to 2016's vote for Brexit while eight years and almost 140 billion pounds ($184 billion) of spending cuts hit public services and social aid. In London, the wealth and glamour of Europe's most global city mask a struggling underclass in jobs that don't pay enough to afford the basics.
“I don’t have much food so I need to get it somewhere,” said Sean Gibson, 41, standing at the back of the line patiently waiting for his dinner from the pink marquee run by Friends of Essex and London Homeless.
He said he can’t earn enough to pay rent and eat as a courier for a food delivery company. At most, he says he was earning 960 pounds every six weeks in a city where average monthly rents are about twice that. “Half the rents here are 600 pounds and up. How can people afford that? It’s ridiculous,” he said.
Britain is increasingly a country of parallel universes.
Employment is at a record thanks to flexible work contracts like Gibson’s, the economy is healthy enough for the Bank of England to be raising the cost of borrowing, and absolute poverty rates are at record lows.
Yet a report by the Resolution Foundation think tank published on July 24 found living standards rose last year at their slowest pace since 2012. The recovery in incomes following the global financial crisis has even gone into reverse for the poorest 30 percent of families, it said. While London is the wealthiest region in northern Europe, the U.K. is also home to nine of its 10 poorest regions.
Public spending in Britain has fallen to about 38 percent of gross domestic product from 45 percent in 2010, according to figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Research by charity Shelter found that 55 percent of homeless families in temporary accommodation are working. The 33,000 families represent an increase of 73 percent since 2013, according to the research based on freedom of information requests.
“Everybody’s fighting for themselves now,” Mohammed Nazir, the cabinet member for housing in Slough Borough Council on the fringes of London, said after a meeting in the U.K. Parliament about homelessness. “Social consciousness is rapidly disappearing.”