Our leaders and leaders-in-waiting could do worse than look to Ross Kemp for a critique of all that’s wrong with housing policy. The filmmaker and former EastEnders star was given a blank slate to make documentaries on four of Britain’s biggest issues for his new ITV series. So obviously he picked homelessness. After years of infiltrating gangs, facing war zones and hunting pirates off the coast of Somalia, Kemp wanted to look closer to home at issues that have been “stuffed under the carpet” while Brexit dominates the agenda.
In his mission to understand Britain’s homelessness crisis, he slept out on the coldest night in seven years in Cardiff with rough sleepers Connor and Jammo before spending the night in the city’s main shelter, the Huggard.
We can’t rely on charity, especially when we are paying our taxes. We need to be addressing homelessness head-on and that doesn’t seem to be happening
He sat unrecognised for four hours on the Welsh capital’s high street, spoken to only once by a drug dealer who offered him Spice.
And he headed to homelessness minister Heather Wheeler’s constituency in South Derbyshire and heard the story of Swadlincote’s Ebenezer Goode – a man who does not exist according to the official count that recorded zero rough sleepers in the area. And that’s after uncovering “racist” emails sent to the charity Burton Hope before the minister took up her role. Kemp tells The Big Issue why it’s so important that we make rough sleepers count.
The Big Issue: What drew you to covering homelessness?
Ross Kemp: I think over the last four years, whether intentional or not, the eyes of most of us have been on the future of this country and while we have been worrying about that the future has been happening. At 54 I have spent a lot of time travelling around the world looking at other countries’ problems and I thought I’ve got an opportunity here to show what has been going on – I think things have been stuffed under the carpet and I think people in authority have allowed that to happen, and it’s wrong.
I walk from Holborn Tube station down to the offices I’m in now virtually every day and you can see it on the streets. So reading that there was a two per cent drop in rough sleeping when I see 11 to 12 people every day didn’t fucking add up, and it still doesn’t add up because you can’t count them the way Heather Wheeler wants to count them. Just because you can make a statement that we come in with a homeless count of zero doesn’t mean that there are zero rough sleepers – that doesn’t make sense to me. The fact you can refer to them as “tinkers and knife cutters” is at worst racist and at best ignorant. So not impressed with that. That was a shock to me.
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.
Tell us about Ebenezer Goode – the man who has slept rough in Wheeler’s South Derbyshire constituency for 32 years. How long did it take to find him?
He wasn’t easy to find. I was in the car and we were trying to track him down across three buses so it was a real make-or-break moment to get him because he could have just told us to get lost. But when he saw me get on the bus in the middle of the Derbyshire hills, he just laughed to himself and he was a top man. But that’s why you can’t go out one afternoon to get an accurate count. You’ve got charities like Shelter and other organisations in place who can give you a truer representation at different times of year of how many people are sleeping rough. Why not use them?
In the time you spent sleeping in the Huggard shelter you say that people working there are not support workers and shouldn’t be expected to provide support. How do we fill that gap?
You’d like to say funding, wouldn’t you? Funding, training – those guys at the shelter are doing the best job they can considering the funds it has and the people who work there – but they can’t be mental health workers and they can’t be doctors and nurses. They can’t be all those things. I saw that all the way through the documentaries, whether it was young carers or whoever else giving up their time. There are so many other bigger issues at play there. You’ve got to look at Universal Credit – a lot of those lads at the shelter just can’t understand how it works and can’t deal with it, they’ve never had to. But we can’t rely on charity, especially when we are paying our taxes. We need to be addressing homelessness head-on and that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Coming soon pic.twitter.com/ZKERKGfcge
— Ross Kemp (@RossKemp) February 17, 2019
We often hear Big Issue vendors talk about how they feel ignored when working on the street. Were you prepared for your reception on Cardiff’s main street?
Think about it this way – I was on television in EastEnders in front of 25 million people for nearly 10 years and I’ve been on television regularly since then. When I’m out and about, I rarely get ignored – even this morning I did about five or six selfies on the Tube. I’m used to being acknowledged either positively or negatively. It was very interesting for me to be totally unengaged for those four hours. And the only person who came and spoke to me wanted to sell me Spice.
Through your new documentaries the patterns are there, aren’t they? The lack of funding, outsourcing, charity and goodwill picking up
This isn’t an anti-government film, this is just a film about the way it is. I thought particularly with homelessness, when you’re told it has gone down – if you ask any person they’ll all say it’s gone up because they’ve seen it. I hope it comes across that the clichés that everyone is a drug addict or pretending to be homeless while getting picked up in a Rolls-Royce are absolutely farcical. I haven’t put as much effort into something as I have done with this in a long time. It’s not all just about Brexit. That has been a great excuse to take your eye off the ball.
Ross Kemp: Living with Homelessness will be on ITV at 7.30pm in July 25