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Opinion

A quarter of a million renters risk losing their homes – they need help, not judgement

There are 225,000 people at real risk of homelessness. In a period of crisis like this, there is no time to judge and weigh, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

There is a teacher zipping about Leeds delivering beds. Over the last few years Bex Wilson has helped get 1,400 beds and bedding to the most in-need children in the city. There is a film about Bex on the BBC website. She is one of those good, indomitable people who see a problem and decide to do what they can to fix it.

She arrives at a house, a house stalked by poverty, tells children she had heard they were great but could be even greater if they had a good night’s sleep, and like Nanny McPhee she helps them and then heads off into the city air. She’s careful to make sure the children don’t feel embarrassed about their situation.

“It’s just not right in 2021 that, in Britain, we have children that don’t have a bed,” she says, simply. She’s right, of course.

Watching Wilson at work, the scale of the problem facing many in Britain is reinforced. The families she helps are on the edge juggling with what they have – for example, to repair a washing machine, an essential piece of kit with small children in the house, or to use the money to buy a new bed for one of the kids. You see the reality and you feel an urge to rip everything down and start again. The inequity and the inequality drip with that metallic taste of injustice. It makes angry Roy Keanes of us all. 

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But just being angry won’t help things. Helping helps. As Wilson said, some people argue that what she is doing is just a sticking plaster. Maybe. But in that moment that is EXACTLY what is needed.

I took part in a radio debate last week, hosted by the peerless Colin Murray.

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He wanted to see just how intractable the problem of homelessness was. I was with the Conservative MP Bob Blackman. I think Blackman is a decent man. He is one of those MPs who is there to serve his constituents and try and make things better. He drove through the Homeless Reduction Act in 2017, a really important life-altering piece of legislation. He continues to work for proper change co-chairing the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness.

As part of The Big Issue Stop Mass Homelessness Campaign we’re calling for the government to pay off the £360 million debts accrued by renters as they struggled during the time of Covid.

I spoke about this and Blackman agreed that help was needed. But he cautioned that we shouldn’t “reward” those who “chose” not to pay their rent. I didn’t agree during the debate and I still don’t. By setting up this split we move into the realms of the deserving and undeserving poor.

It takes us down a nasty road. There may be a few tenants who acted as Blackman suggested. Let’s accept that fact, move on, and deal with the bigger problem. There are 225,000 people at real risk of homelessness. Pay now, move everybody out of the parlous position, and reset. In a period of crisis like this, there is no time to judge and weigh. We can’t means test for righteousness.

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Bex Wilson, moving the mattresses around Leeds, isn’t stopping outside houses to check whether parents are the right sort of poor. She’s fixing a problem. It’s a good lead to follow. Find the problem, fix it and encourage bigger wheels to keep turning in the background to get to the source.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here.

paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com

@PauldMcNamee

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