LONDON – A mural by anonymous British street artist Banksy depicting a homeless man being pulled by two reindeer has gone viral on social media, as the number of homeless deaths in the country hit a new high last year.
A video of the living artwork, which appeared in the English city of Birmingham over the weekend, shows a homeless man named Ryan lying on a bench with his belongings in a reindeer-led sled, and has received nearly 3 million views on Instagram.
Homelessness has been increasing in England for nearly a decade amid rising rents, a freeze on welfare benefits and a social housing shortage.
Some 726 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2018 — the equivalent of two each day and the highest since data collection began in 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
“God bless Birmingham,” Banksy wrote on his Instagram page on Monday.
“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.”
The Bristol-born artist, who keeps his identity a secret, is known for his political and social-commentary graffiti work that has popped up in cities around the world.
Julie Griffin, acting housing director at Birmingham City Council, said that every year the city ensures it has “sufficient emergency accommodation for anybody sleeping on our streets and this year will be no exception.”
“We’re starting to see a reduction in rough sleeping in Birmingham,” she said.
City-goers and housing charities have praised the artwork on social media — which has spawned the hashtag #BanksyinBrum and since had red noses sprayed on the reindeer.
“5th richest country in the world & we have people sleeping in the streets…#DISGRACEFUL,” wrote one Instagram user who called himself Chris Jennings.
The introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act in 2018, which increased the obligations of local authorities, has prevented some 58,290 households from becoming homeless in the last year, according to the British government.