Raise a roof for the homeless

As the number of people living and dying on our streets rises with empty houses reaching an all-time high, Lee Rushton reports on a Labour campaign to end the scandal

In Britain today, 320,000 people are homeless. Yet whilst those people sleep on the streets, 216,000 houses in England alone remain empty. Why? Because these houses aren’t homes, they’re capital.

In the 1980’s, the first right-to-buy TV advert proudly claimed, “You can decide whether to turn your home into a house”. Since then, privatisation has been seeping into our homes, like damp.

The use of ‘right’ was well thought-out, giving the impression this was a scheme for all, a chance of stability that everyone deserves. But the offer wasn’t valid. Housing instability didn’t exist until efforts were turned to selling instead of creating social housing.

This was a crucial point of removing stability from those who needed it the most. Within 10 years, council house rents had risen by 55%. Gradually availability of social housing declined, power was passed to private landlords, and rents began to rise at an unprecedented rate.

Since 2010 private sector rents in England have gone up by three times as much as wages. In London rents have risen eight times the average wage increase. The result is more people, like Michael, on the streets of the fifth richest country on earth.

Wrapped in a sleeping bag, he tells us about his daily experience: “All I see is people’s shoes, lots and lots of shoes going past me. I feel dehumanised every day. I feel invisible and I feel horrible…. I feel exhausted and cold a lot. I feel empty”. Are we normalising homelessness in this country? With one in five people living in poverty, this isn’t about individual action, we need radical political and systemic change.

Austerity has cut the budgets of local government and the vital services they provide. The focus is not on prevention but attempting, and failing, to deal with ‘the problem’ once people are sleeping on the streets. In London alone councils are paying private landlords £14m per year in an attempt to house those experiencing homelessness.

Labour Homelessness Campaign have met and heard the stories of people on the streets across the country.  In Manchester, we met Jess – pregnant, homeless, and with no access to homeless services. Within 10 minutes we met four more people experiencing rough sleeping. They described being ‘harassed’ by the police and being fined and taken to court under the Vagrancy Act.

Labour Homelessness Campaign are calling for an end to this draconian policy and the criminalisation of homeless people. The mistreatment of homeless people is everywhere. As Labour members, we need to tackle this within our own party, first by working where Labour are already in power to ensure shelter for all.

An inhumane ‘move them along’ mentality is growing. In Westminster, rough sleepers have been moved on from the little warmth they have found, as it is suggested they disturb MPs getting to work. Two policies are in effect to this end: the Vagrancy Act, and Public Service Protection Orders (PSPO’s).

A study by the charity Crisis showed that 73% of rough sleepers experienced criminalisation in the last year. Between 2014 and 2017, 6,518 people were found guilty under the nearly 200-year-old Vagrancy Act and punishments can range from a fine to up to six months’ imprisonment. There is little that feels so blaringly idiotic as fining those who are homeless for being on the street.

Much like this outdated policy, PSPOs also allow councils to fine people. At least 60 councils have them in place. When Manchester City Council recently launched their PSPO consultation Andy Burnham claimed “it’s not about criminalising people who are sleeping rough or people who have got nowhere else to go.” Yet it explicitly identifies “putting up tents, seeking charity and other behaviour associated with rough sleeping” as reason to be served a PSPO – behaviour that is inevitable for many experiencing homelessness.

Slapping fines on people experiencing homelessness is never the answer. Rather than driving people out of city centres with PSPOs, Labour local authorities should be defending the rights of rough sleepers to exist in public spaces like anyone else. As the Labour Homelessness Campaign, we advocate for an approach of care, not criminalisation.

Empty properties serve no value to society. We should be helping lives, not landlords. Homeless people need homes and the right to exist in public spaces. What is really damaging society after all: a tent for temporary accommodation, or 597 homeless people dying on our streets whilst houses stay empty?

Lee Rushton

Lee Rushton is an activist with the Labour Homelessness Campaign and volunteers with Streets Kitchen.