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Big Issue Changemakers 2021: Housing and homelessness

There are more people at risk of homelessness than ever before. These Changemakers helped address that big issue
Sarah Lamptey, ShowerBox founder

The pandemic has put renters at risk of homelessness and made it harder for rough sleepers people to access services. Despite a patchwork of eviction bans and lengthy notice periods for landlords, fresh redundancies and income cuts have many worried about keeping a roof over their head.

Homelessness in the UK had already reached crisis point, leaving frontline volunteers to plug the gaps. But in 2020 their efforts became more vital than ever before. Some raised money for homelessness. Others were on the streets every day of lockdown helping those with nowhere to go. All their efforts will be critical in the difficult months ahead.

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45. Sarah Lamptey – ShowerBox

Making sure people experiencing homelessness have access to washing facilities.

ShowerBox is a community initiative that provides hot showers and a safe place to stay clean for rough sleepers in Central London. It was founded by Sarah Lamptey, who also drives the mobile shower unit. In 2020, ShowerBox has expanded its reach while keeping its focus on direct contact with the people it helps. It is currently running weekly services at St Giles’ Church near Tottenham Court Road.

The Big Issue: What challenges did you face in 2020?

Sarah Lamptey: We want to get local government and councils involved. But if you’re a smaller organisation you might be seen as not very well informed or that you’re not making a massive change. But there are different ways to help an individual. Giving someone a shower doesn’t negate the rest of the work people are doing. That’s our little chunk, and what we want to be really good at achieving.

What advice would you give to someone who has an idea and wants to set up their own group?

You can be so daunted and overwhelmed by what you’re trying to achieve that you don’t get started. It’s important to remember that there’s so much that we can achieve if we just take the smallest of steps. Most importantly, look at other groups and what is already going on. There’s no point doubling up efforts if there’s somebody else that’s already laid the groundwork that could be supported. Is there a way to boost a service that’s already running and maybe struggling?

What are your plans for 2021?

We need a washing machine, so that’s a medium-term goal. We also want to install a fixed container with two showers and changing rooms in a useful public place. It’s really important that whatever next steps we make it takes into the account the needs and sensitivities of the area.

46. Michael Cullen aka Speedo Mick

In 2014 Everton fan Mick Cullen swam across the Channel and raised thousands of pounds for charity in the process – and Speedo Mick was born.

The blue swimming trunks have since become Mick’s signature as his fundraising efforts switched to land.

The 55-year-old, a former addict who has turned his life around, completed a 1,000-mile walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise more than half a million pounds just as the pandemic hit.

He is about to embark on a 2,000-mile journey across England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to deliver those funds to struggling charities to help them rebuild from the effects of Covid-19 as well as raising community spirit and smiles along the way.

The Big Issue: What is the driving force behind your challenges?

Michael Cullen: I was an addict and I was homeless, I was in a dark place until I got clean and sober 18 years ago. I had lost my way and my life was a disaster, I had lost my dignity, my family and my self-respect. But I have had a second bite at life, I’ve grabbed it with both hands and I’ve got the lust for it. The only reason I am here is to give back and it’s imperative that you share the positive stuff in life.

How do people react when they see you?

You wouldn’t believe the support I had on the last challenge. It was unbelievable. People were asking me to come into their homes for a cup of tea even though I do everything in knickers! I’m going to keep doing these challenges while my body still can and is still viewable!

How do you manage the challenges in just a pair of swimming trunks?

You can never stay warm and you can’t really stop and so many people come out to greet me that I’m always stopping! After 20 seconds you’re freezing and you’re spiritually, emotionally and physically exhausted but they’re coming out to see me and that’s amazing.

47/48. Museum of Homelessness

Co-founders Jess and Matt Turtle are shining a light on the individuals who can often be overlooked or forgotten.

The Museum of Homelessness is a social justice museum created and run by people with direct experience of homelessness. It collects and shares the art, history and culture of housing inequality to change society for the better. The team does outreach work on the streets to support London’s rough sleepers – working tirelessly through the pandemic.

The Big Issue: What can someone do if they want to tackle homelessness in their area?

Jess Turtle: We would recommend people look for the grassroots organisations and get involved in renters’ unions. More of us need to be joining unions and rent resistance groups. Part of it is about challenging the government on unfair evictions, but we also have to be there for individuals who are in crises. There really has been a sense of reacting to an emergency, and that blitz spirit should continue.

What got you involved in this work?

Myself and my husband both have a background in museum work. We realised that there wasn’t a museum highlighting the reality of being homeless. I also experienced being homeless as a young person, so this work means a lot to me.

What does the Museum of Homelessness have planned in the coming months?

Our focus next year is going to be on tackling racism within homelessness. With Brexit coming, next year is going to be very hard for homeless migrants, and we want to tackle this attitude that we should only be protecting ‘our’ homeless people.

49. The Outside Project

The Outside Project was launched as the UK’s first LGBTQI-specific homeless shelter and community hub, providing refuge and support to a demographic disproportionately affected by homelessness. In 2020, the project has continued to expand by launching Star, a domestic abuse refuge for London’s queer population. The LGBT Foundation estimates that domestic abuse cases against queer people has more than doubled during lockdown, as residents are forced to isolate with abusive family members and partners. The Outside Project’s continued work aims to alleviate this harm.

50. Streets Kitchen

This grassroots homelessness outreach group has been a lifeline for vulnerable people during the past 12 months, providing resources and relief as well as food and clothing donations. Their mission is to make change at all levels through direct community action. One example comes from their Tricky Period offshoot where activists in London provided free sanitary products at libraries after they got word that those in need were resorting to stealing due to lack of supplies.

Laurence Brophy rests on his bike during one of his cycles to help end homelessness
laurence brophy

51. Laurence Brophy

Last year, at the age of 87, Laurence Brophy completed a solo cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats to raise money for homeless charity Llamau. Aged 88, he doubled the feat by cycling 2,000 miles there and back again. Along his journey, Brophy slept rough in tough conditions to highlight the reality of homelessness. The resulting trip has made him the oldest person to complete the journey, and he raised nearly £4,000 for charity.

52. Jorawar Singh Rathour

London Homeless Welfare was launched on New Year’s Day 2020 by Jorawar ‘Jay’ Singh Rathour, a formerly homeless man who wanted to do what he could to support rough sleepers. Starting by providing food, clothing and other supplies, the charity became even more essential once the pandemic hit. London Homeless Welfare also provided homeless people with Covid protection kits to keep themselves clean and to limit the spread of coronavirus. With homeless people often not given access to information or supplies, the group is now campaigning to make sure the most vulnerable are never overlooked.

53. London Renters Union

Membership to the London Renters Union more than doubled in 2020, as public consciousness of unfair eviction practices began to rise. The union was a key influencer in extending the government’s eviction ban twice, as well as helping to introduce a six-month notice period for evictions. There are now 4,500 members fighting to fulfil the union’s goal of creating fair living situations in the capital.

54. Living Rent

This Scottish tenants’ union is part of the movement for more rent controls to protect tenants. It campaigned for an eviction ban during lockdown. Polling for Living Rent has previously shown overwhelming public support for such measures, with 75 per cent of Scots backing calls for a national system of rent controls. Its 2021 manifesto focuses on influencing change by pressuring the government for new measures ahead of Holyrood elections.

You can read Changemakers 1-18, the people leading the fight against poverty, here. Find out about Changemakers 19-44, the people meeting the challenges of Covid-19, here.