As new figures show a record increase in homeless deaths, politicians walk past rough sleepers outside Parliament every day. So why is progress on tackling homelessness still so slow?by Tara Jane O'Reilly / October 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
The borough of Westminster is notorious for its poor handling of homelessness. I know that all too well; I experienced it myself. I was lucky to have a relative’s floor to sleep on while the council took four months to rehouse a mother and two teenagers.
Others aren’t so lucky. Across England and Wales, new figures show, homeless deaths have risen by record levels, with an average of two deaths a day. There is no excuse for politicians’ lack of awareness of this issue: homelessness in Westminster has risen 16 per cent between April 2018 and March 2019, and the council is regularly under fire for its attitude towards homelessness. Outside the Houses of Parliament, rough sleepers settle outside the Tesco metro and coffee shops, or inside Westminster tube station, passed by MPs and their staff every day.
You would expect—or at least hope—that homelessness on the doorstep of the Palace of Westminster, the most powerful institution in the UK and where hundreds of powerful people walk each day, would be treated with compassion and support.
Instead, they have been evicted from their sleeping space and a metal barrier has been installed to block their entrance to where they would sleep.
If an MP walked into Parliament to find their pass revoked and themselves barred from entering their office, there would be an uproar, and people would be held accountable. Whilst it is reported Parliament is offering the rough sleepers support, they were given no prior warning and forced to find somewhere else to go.
One of the rough sleepers described it as “money wasted on deterrents” and said the barrier is just a “way to stop them [rough sleepers] sleeping. Not actually getting anyone off the streets.”
Anti-homelessness activists staged a protest on Monday evening outside the newly installed barrier and moments away from where two rough sleepers died last year, with John McDonnell tweeting solidarity with the activists. It is welcome news that the Shadow Chancellor is paying attention, but the silence and inaction from many in Westminster—whilst finding time to protest prorogation in the chamber—illustrates just how out of touch the Westminster bubble really is with the lives of everyday people. It is tempting to get sucked into the Westminster bubble and distance yourself from real world issues sometimes—we all do it. However, the sad news of two people dying on the doorstep of Parliament should have shocked us all into action about homelessness.
Walking through the tube entrance to the Palace, you would often hear passholders, including MPs, complain, and see them roll their eyes in disgust at the rough sleepers in the underpass—so it is no surprise an excuse was found during the quiet summer recess to remove them from the area.
How can anyone working in or around Westminster not feel ashamed that this is how a rough sleeper on the doorstep of Parliament feels in 2019? And if the livelihoods of rough sleepers sleeping outside Parliament aren’t important enough to pay attention to, what about the 4,667 others who rough sleep around the country every night?
On social media, people in politics across the political spectrum get irate and complain when we see anti-homeless spikes outside buildings. A gate may not look as aggressive as spikes on the ground, but the message is still the same: you are not welcome here. You look different, you smell different, and you are not one of us. If you are destitute, you do not belong in our shared spaces.
The impact is still the same, too—these people will still be rough sleeping, just elsewhere, out of the view of MPs and lucrative tourists; out of the view of those ultimately responsible and accountable for homelessness in the UK.
Whilst we are slowly stepping in the right direction to tackle homelessness, for instance, with the Homelessness Reduction Bill, progress is just that: slow. Since 2010, rough sleeping has increased by 165 per cent, and the Vagrancy Act makes it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. We’ve previously been effective at tackling rough sleeping and we know how to fix it—the last Labour government almost eradicated it.
Parliament should lead the way and send a message to those struggling with homelessness across the country—rough sleepers, the invisible homeless, and those worried about eviction—by offering support to those still struggling on our doorstep in Westminster tube station.
Westminster cannot be taken seriously when it talks about tackling homelessness, regardless of how many debates it holds or funds it allocates to the issue, when we are building physical barriers to move rough sleepers out of our way to get into our offices. Whilst the “night shift” group of rough sleepers may be out of sight now, they certainly should not be out of the minds of people in Westminster.