The Margin: Banksy is the latest artist drawing attention to homelessness this holiday season

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Banksy’s latest work illustrates the best and worst of humankind, just in time for the holidays.

The anonymous street artist spray-painted a couple of reindeer on a brick wall beside a public bench, where the homeless of Birmingham in central England are wont to sleep. A video posted to Banksy’s Instagram FB, +0.69%  page shows a man going to sleep on the bench — which, with the reindeer appearing to “pull” it, stands in for Santa’s sleigh. Instead of Santa’s sack of toys, the disheveled man fluffs a sack of his worldly possessions, and uses it as a pillow.

But Banksy’s caption for the clip carries a message of hope: “God bless Birmingham,” it reads. “In the 20 minutes we filmed Ryan on this bench passers-by gave him a hot drink, two chocolate bars and a lighter — without him ever asking for anything.”

This was Banksy’s gift to the central England city, where homeless people are dying on the street at nearly twice the national rate, according to a recent report from the local Birmingham Mail.

The video went viral, drawing more than 3 million views and 14,000 comments and counting since it was posted on Monday, and fueling the ongoing conversation about the homelessness crisis around the world.

There are an estimated 1.1 billion people living in inadequate housing across the globe, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Program, and the best data available suggest that more than 100 million people have no housing at all.

Closer to home, more than half a million people are homeless each night in the United States, according to a recent White House report, and almost half of America’s homeless are in California, where four of the five cities with the highest rate of unsheltered homeless are found. Indeed, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent point-in-time estimates of homelessness count 129,972 people experiencing homelessness in California, and 91,897 in New York.

Read more: Nearly half of the U.S.’s homeless people live in one state: California

Banksy’s holiday mural — which has already been targeted by vandalism twice in the past two days, including someone painting red noses on the reindeer — is the latest case of an artist trying to draw attention to homelessness.

Celebrities including Helen Mirren, Will Smith and Brian Cox participated in the 2019 World’s Big Sleepout last Saturday night. They led the more than 50,000 people around the world who spent the night sleeping outside in 60 cities such as New York’s Times Square and London’s Trafalgar Square, to show solidarity with the millions experiencing homelessness and displacement around the world, and to raise money and awareness for homeless outreach.

“What’s disturbing, profoundly, to me is the exponential rise in homelessness that I’ve noticed … in every city in Los Angeles, in New York, in London,” Mirren told Reuters. “The line between having a home and homelessness for many families is so thin.”

But some U.S. cities are criminalizing homelessness, such as Lancaster, Calif.’s proposed ban on giving food to people on public streets, sidewalks, parking lots and other city-owned property. NYC mayor Bill de Blasio is sending homeless New Yorkers to other cities around the country in a controversial $89 million relocation program.

Other places are arresting or ticketing the homeless, which is the wrong approach according to a new  National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty report released Tuesday, as reported by USA Today.

This comes as the U.S. Supreme Court hears a case on whether it’s legal to arrest unsheltered people who have no place to go. The problem is a misdemeanor conviction could exclude someone from qualifying for housing or affordable housing which keeps them homeless. And fines can wipe out the limited budgets of those experiencing homelessness.

For more information on how to give more than lip service to people who are homeless this holiday season, read here.