Last week I sort of returned to my political roots. I went to the Whitechapel Centre and talked to them about the continuing problems of homelessness in our City.
In 1975 soon after I was first elected to the Council I was made chair of the Homeless Committee. We had discovered a massive overspend, for those days, of £250,000 in our homeless budget and I was supposed to sort it out. When I looked into what the council was doing for the homeless of the city I discovered that it was doing next to nothing. We had one hostel for homeless families in Kirkdale and that was it. We had no idea of who was practically homeless in the city; we had few priorities for homeless people within our allocations policy; and we had no interest at all in understanding what was happening in the single homeless sector. We didn’t even have a definition of what ‘homeless’ meant.
Within three years we made massive progress. Increasing the number of family hostels including support for shelters for abused women and their families and we closed down both the Unique Hostel (more later) and two Salvation Army hostels one for men and women. In the case of the Salvation Army we gave them grants to build new, smaller and better accommodation. The Unique was another story.
It was a privately run hostel for 220+ single men in the Everton area. It accounted for approximately 30% of male deaths in that ward in any given year. It had three toilets for those men. For many men it took 5 minutes plus to get to the loo which was 4 minutes 50 seconds too long so there were buckets of excrement and urine all over the building.
One morning, despite political opposition from the Tories on the council, a band of people led by a first class officer, Jill Preston, stormed the building having got a management order through the courts. They scrubbed it, heated it and provided portable toilets and a clean and wholesome canteen. Nine months later we were able to close it having already made massive inroads into the health problems of the mainly elderly men.
In my visit to the Whitechapel Centre I saw that many of the issues that we looked at almost 40 years ago are the same as the issues that pertain today. The way we deal with those issues, however, is much improved.
Today people can move from being secure to being homeless in a matter of months; some suffer family break downs; some lose their jobs; some have mental problems; some leave institutions such as prisons or the armed forces with little practical idea of how to live outside that regulated regime.
The list of reasons for being homeless is endless because every homeless person has a different story to tell but in many ways the process of putting them back into ‘normal’ accommodation so that they can lead a ‘normal’ life is much the same.
Firstly, the Whitechapel Centre ensures that they have somewhere warm for the night
Secondly they look at the underlying reasons for being homeless. Being homeless is always an effect of another problem or problems being faced
Thirdly they find appropriate short-term accommodation – although some can go into permanent accommodation
Finally continued help is given to assist with the underlying social, mental or educational problem.
Until people have accommodation that they can really call home it is almost impossible to deal with other problems. Decent accommodation is the start of a new or at least a renewed life.
Because I saw the problems of poor housing so acutely 40 years ago I have spent most of my ‘political’ life involved in housing both locally and nationally. The simple fact is that for 40 years we have not built enough housing of any type in any area to deal with the growing population and number of family units. It is an indictment of the last Labour Government that the number of social homes in the UK actually declined by 430,000 in their 13 years of government. They should not have followed Tory policy of ‘right to buy’ without councils being able to use the capital receipts for new build.
There are some aspects which this Government shares with the last that I deplore. For all those 40 years housing policy has been dictated by the needs of London and the South East. We have never had a national housing policy we have always had a London policy inflicted on the rest of us. I oppose the current Government’s policy of the so called bedroom tax because it will increase the threat if not the actuality of evictions and will in so doing help destabilise already difficult communities.
The Whitechapel Centre is an example to us all about how to take a pragmatic, realistic and caring approach to this fundamental human problem. I cannot speak too highly of the excellent work that they are doing and the fact that the current Lord Mayor, Gary Miller has made them one of his Mayoral Charities. I know that Erica wants to see them and see if there is anything she can do to help when she becomes Lord Mayor in June.
There are people in all Parties who share very similar views about expanding building programmes in both the public and private sectors; regulating private landlords; stimulating high quality development rather than tacky boxes and creating communities and not houses. Is it too much to ask that those of good faith in all Parties and of none get together to help find ways to give people their basic human right – a home?