Big Issue Vendor

Thangam Debbonaire: ‘Street homelessness is a moral failure this Christmas’

The Shadow Housing Secretary praises The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance campaign as she insists the time is now to end rough sleeping for good

Shadow Housing Secretary Thangam Debbonaire has called rough sleeping this Christmas a “moral failure” as thousands of people are expected to be without a home this winter. 

Speaking to The Big Issue as she launched Labour’s winter homelessness campaign, the Bristol West MP called on the Government to make sure everyone has a safe, Covid-secure place to stay this winter and accused ministers of failing to capitalise on gains made in the first lockdown, when the sleepers were protected through the Everyone In scheme. 

“I see rough sleeping as a moral failure for us all but also as something that is letting everybody down,” she said.

“This year we have really learned that the suffering of another person has a direct connection to everyone around them as well. That means we have failed as a society and we have failed society.”

While the Government has spent £700 million on tackling homelessness and rough sleeping this year and put billions into protecting jobs through the furlough scheme, the challenge to stop people falling into homelessness is one that Debbonaire insists has not been met.

England’s second lockdown saw the Labour frontbencher call for a repeat of the Everyone In scheme that protected 15,000 rough sleepers in hotels and emergency accommodation at the height of the first lockdown.

But there has been no widespread national call to bring people in off the streets, despite rising Covid-19 cases, and the Government still has much to do to hit their target of ending rough sleeping by the end of 2024.

Official figures in 2019 estimated 4,266 people slept on the streets at Christmas and many experts have feared the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has pushed more people into homelessness.

In London alone, 1,901 people were recorded as sleeping rough for the first time in the three months after the first lockdown between July and September, according to CHAIN figures.

More broadly, homelessness charity Crisis recently reported more than 200,000 households are expected to be homeless this Christmas.

The Shadow Housing Secretary is now focused on immediate need over winter, calling on the Government to make extra effort to protect people at a time when shelters are adapting to being able to offer limited bed spaces due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“We need a redoubling of the commitment that nobody should be on the streets. It looks like those gains from Everyone In have been lost,” she said.

“But above all we need the government to show leadership. I haven’t heard them say the words: “Nobody should spend winter on the streets”. I haven’t heard them say that.”

The Big Issue’s campaign is fantastic, making the case to government that ending homelessness – and preventing it too – has to rest on good quality jobs

Labour is also urging an inclusive approach, protecting people from Covid and the cold regardless of their nationality.

That demand comes just days after new immigration rules came into force meaning non-UK nationals could face deportation on the grounds of rough sleeping.

The rules have already faced resistance from Labour councils, including in London boroughs Haringey and Southwark, while campaigners are raising funds to mount a legal challenge in a bid to overturn the new rules. 

Debbonaire said: “We think that the threat of deportation for people on the streets is deeply immoral. It would be an appalling thing to do at any time but doing this at the moment when we are going into the deepest recession for generations and in the middle of a pandemic, it’s really reprehensible. It’s irresponsible on so many levels.

“The Government needs to work with Labour councils up and down the country who are pulling out all the stops to make sure that nobody, regardless of their immigration status, is put on the streets.”

Debbonaire heaped praise on The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance (RORA) for its efforts to prevent homelessness and protect jobs throughout the devastating economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Big Issue launched the RORA campaign as it became clear Covid-19’s impact on the economy would lead to greater hardship.

“The Big Issue’s campaign is fantastic, making the case to government that ending homelessness – and preventing it too – has to rest on good quality jobs and has to rest on a housing system that is affordable,” she said.

“Ultimately this is a government failure which they should be ashamed of and being told by campaigns – like The Big Issue’s – how to fix at least this part of it and then choosing not to do that is a moral failure on the government’s part.

“The Big Issue can help end homelessness this winter by continuing to do the work that The Big Issue already does, which is the campaigning work but also the focus of giving people meaningful work and getting them back into accommodation.”

Support The Big Issue this Christmas

However, despite the many challenges in the fight to end homelessness, Debbonaire believes this year, more than ever, shows it is possible.

The spirit shown during the Covid-19 crisis has shown homelessness to be a “fixable problem”, she said, if the Government, the public, charities and campaigners can all work together with the urgency shown in Everyone In.

“I genuinely think that this year this crisis has tapped some communal action of sharing the desire to see a better world,” said Debbonaire. 

“This year has been a giant exercise of something really quite remarkable in a way, which is people doing things for the greater good. We’ve seen that with Marcus Rashford’s child food poverty campaign where people, with no benefit to themselves, really got on board with the idea that this is a moral failing. It’s a fixable problem.

“All these things are about the greater good and we have learnt that in relation to street homelessness too.”