Banksy highlights Christmas homeless plight

Elusive British street artist Banksy has highlighted the issue of rough sleeping in a seasonal mural showing two flying reindeer pulling a homeless man on a street-bench sleigh.

The artwork, created in Banksy's trademark stencilled graffiti style, appeared in Birmingham, central England, at the weekend.

A video posted on Banksy's Instagram shows a bearded man named Ryan reclining on the bench, echoing the traditional image of Santa on his sleigh.

"God bless Birmingham," Banksy wrote. "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 video attracted nearly 3 million views on Instagram in the first 24 hours, and created a buzz in Birmingham.

The two reindeer gained red noses in the hours after the mural was unveiled. A protective fence was in place on Tuesday, stopping any other additions to the design.

Mercia Buddle, one of the crowds of people visiting the mural on Tuesday, said it was good for the city.

"Visitors are coming and they have probably come from all over the Midlands," she said.

"And of course it is great to highlight homelessness when the guy was actually on the bench, so it is serving a lot of purposes really - I think it is great."

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.

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 told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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. 

Works by Banksy, who has never revealed his identity, have rocketed in value.

A large Banksy painting of chimps sitting in Britain's parliament sold for more than $US12 million ($NZ18 million) in October this year - a record price at auction for his work.

Later in the same month, however, Banksy opened his own "online store", selling works for as little as £10 ($NZ20) to buyers who were randomly selected and who could answer the question: "Why does art matter?".

- Reporting by Reuters and Thomson Reuters Foundation

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