I’m on the District Line commuting all the way from Stepney Green in East London to Southfields, in South West, where I live. It’s around half ten at night and there are only several passengers dotted across the tube, either buried in a book or lost in their smartphones. I’m approached by a poorly dressed woman clutching a paper cup. ‘Sorry to bother you’, she begins; ‘but I’m trying to save up to spend the night in a hostel …’.


Sorry, no cash …

She hasn’t even started her story yet, but despite how touching it could be, my answer stays the same: ‘I’m sorry, I wish I could help, but I don’t have any cash on me’. I feel awful every time I say it, although I should be used to it by now. She gives me a weak smile and wishes me a good evening, and approaches the next passenger. He gives her the same answer as I did.

I examine the passengers’ reactions. Several give her a sympathetic look and explain that they don’t carry cash, but most refuse to even acknowledge her. Others shake their heads in frustration. Despite composing one of society’s most vulnerable groups, those of us that enjoy the comfort of three meals a day and a warm bed at night often perceive the homeless as a nuisance. How dare this beggar interrupt me as I aimlessly scroll through Instagram! — is one thought that might occur. But these ‘nuisances’ are 17 times more likely to be victims of violence, and 9 times more likely to commit suicide and experience physical and mental health problems.

Regardless, governments funnel their efforts into hostile architecture in an attempt to hide that population. Since overt hostile architecture such as the infamous ‘anti-homeless spikes’ received public backlash, rather than diverting money towards keeping people off the streets, more subtle hostile architecture has been implemented. You wouldn’t realise at first glance, but those public toilet taps that run water for a limited time and street bins with too-small mouths are both designed to deter use by the homeless due to their inconvenient design.

A cashless society has been affecting the homeless over the past decade, ever since we discovered the convenience of carrying bank cards instead of wads of cash in our wallets. The change was prompted largely by technology but also personal frustration at ATM machines charging fees for withdrawals, as well as having to awkwardly shove coins into our pockets after paying at checkouts while someone impatiently waits behind you.

Covid fuels the cashless trend

Covid has exacerbated our cashless society significantly. Cash transitioned from being less convenient to a public health concern. Money makes the world go round — so it was decided that social distancing should extend to payments. Banknotes and coins were initially cited as a source of contamination — a theory that has now largely been debunked. The risk of transmission via banknotes, following research by the Bank of England, is deemed to be ‘low’. Regardless, using PIN terminals and queuing to pay means that there is some contact still involved which could effortlessly be reduced by eliminating cash. Since being plagued by fluctuating infection rates and lengthy lockdowns, most Brits are willing to go cashless in a desire for things to go back to normal.

Some social institutions and enterprises have incorporated cashless into their strategies to help the homeless. For instance, TSB recently extended its pilot scheme that offers bank accounts to homeless people in Scotland. Likewise, HSBC offers a No Fixed Address service in partnership with Shelter and other charities, allowing those that experience housing inconsistencies to open accounts. However, HSBC highlights that due to Covid service may be limited in some areas. Services like this allow the homeless to receive benefits much more easily. In a similar vein, The Big Issue allows vendors to go cashless by purchasing an iZettle at a reduced rate of £9 and with lower transaction fees. These vendors have since seen a 30 per cent increase in sales compared to those that only accept cash.

A top-down approach to poverty

On the surface, the cashless society appears to threaten the homeless, but in actuality, it has done them a service by removing the smokescreen that says it’s solely up to civilians to help. The need for top-down over bottom-up approaches to poverty couldn’t have been better emphasized. Crisis reports that recent reforms to the benefits system, a shortage of homes and high rents are influential factors contributing to homelessness. Our government fails to understand that benefits play an important role in helping the homeless find and maintain a job — to achieve this, they need to overcome housing-related problems.

Tory ideology is based on the idea that work must be incentivised to increase participation in the labour force. To reflect this, the £20 weekly pandemic increase to Universal Credit was withdrawn a month ago, which is expected to have a devastating effect on disabled claimants (who are already at an increased risk of homelessness).

The aftermath is already somewhat predictable. Philippa Day took her own life in 2019 following the rejection of a request for an at-home benefits assessment. To compensate other potential victims of austerity, Rishi Sunak has just implemented a questionable ‘tax cut for the low paid’, costing 2 billion. Yet again, this scheme excludes a large number of people. Jonathan Reynolds, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, commented:

‘while it’s welcome that the chancellor is following our lead and reducing the taper rate, he is taking people for fools if he thinks this alone makes up for the biggest ever cut to social security, tax hikes and a cost of living crisis’.

I recall the time a homeless woman asking for money on the tube exclaimed: ‘I’ve never come across such cold-hearted people!’ after no one had donated to her. I don’t imagine that politicians, driving home in black cabs after announcing benefits cuts, ever experience that reaction.