The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey

Book review by David Pentland, Homeless Network Scotland

In the introduction of the book, Darren outlines the political landscape in the UK. He sets the scene well, with some reflections of the social distance between the Conservative government’s policies and legislation, and the aspirational needs of working-class people. He also underlines that the only thing “trickling down” in this economy is national debt, as billions of pounds are wasted in reactionary spending.

Darren begins by walking the reader though one of his own experiences of being class-profiled by the police in Glasgow. It really sets the tone, which immerses the reader in the daily struggles for people of the underclass in a battle for survival. He juxtaposes the experiences of the underclass against the experiences of a thriving upper class, awash with opportunity – a sharp critique of the notion that our society is in any way meritocratic.

There are many thought-provoking themes running throughout the book, although the main focus of this review will be on homelessness, after all it is our business! Having myself personally spent fifteen years revolving between homelessness and prison, followed by a further 20 years working in frontline service provision, Darren’s reflections, and his inclusion of lived experience, really highlight the plight of the people who slip through the cracks and suffer often punitive penalties for society’s lack of ambition around homelessness.

Darren’s movement through the homeless world highlighted a number of important issues from Edinburgh to Aberdeen: we owe it to people to get things right more often. Although the pandemic changed the face of homelessness in terms of rough sleepers, we still have too many people living in temporary accommodation and substandard accommodation, as Darren highlights. However, to say the homelessness problem is the least complex, as Darren says I would argue is a mere simplification of a very complex problem. We live in a time of multiple crises: addiction and mental health; structural obstacles in joining vital support services together; lack of affordable housing; lack of housing in areas people want to live; and refugees of war and political instability joining the ranks of ‘New Scots’, arguably leading to overpopulation in many urban areas.

The question for me always comes back to trauma: in my experience we have many people medicating trauma with psychoactive substances in the margins of our society, and no amount of policy or legislation will mitigate the impact trauma has on peoples’ lives. Add this to the demise of communities as self-sustaining entities, and throw in poor mental health, and we will continue to have a disproportionate amount of people dying on our streets and in our communities.

If ever there were a song to accompany a book, in this case it would be ‘Working Class Hero’ by John Lennon!

I will close with one example Darren did provide that was artistic in its form:

“He was frozen out by an opaque administrative maze, populated by faceless desk-killers. An organisational jigsaw puzzle where decisions with life-and-death implications are made behind a curtain of unaccountable officialdom”.

You can purchase the book here.