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Opinion

Boris Johnson has one chance to prevent a terrible wave of homelessness

The Prime Minister should back the people working to stop a homelessness surge from hitting the UK, says Big Issue editor Paul McNamee

The problem with asking people for their opinion is that frequently they give it to you. Just look at Keir Starmer. One minute he’s shaking his tail feather from the Commons despatch box giving Boris Johnson a torrid time over sleaze. The next, he’s fighting for his political life. And why? Depending on whose analysis you choose to believe it’s because there is a proportion of voters in the north of England who blame Labour for a generational lack of investment in them/Starmer has no plan/Sir Starmer is too metropolitan and understands nothing of the working man/Starmer shouldn’t wear a Harrington jacket at his age.

(Men over 40 normally struggle in Harringtons. Starmer, though, carries it off. That’s envy-inducing; I won’t mention it again).

The other side of this is that regardless of how things have been going, many people are getting their vaccines, they know this signals a hopeful future, and they thank Boris Johnson personally for sorting it. It’s understandable. Regardless of reality, it’s widely perceived. And when that perception takes hold, it has a potency way beyond prosaic realities.

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Look, for instance, at how telling polls around immigration have been in recent years. An Ipsos Mori poll two years ago found that Britons believed the proportion of immigrants in the country was about a quarter of the population. It’s less than 13 per cent. Perhaps because of this, 37 per cent of Britons, in a separate poll, said they felt Britain didn’t feel like home any more. Perception had become a calcifying reality. You don’t have to work too hard to draw lines from this emerging perception to self-serving loudmouths who claimed that by curbing this influx, things would FEEL better, work would return, controls would be reset.

But what if perception is useful, and can lead to positive change?

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Recently the Centre for Homelessness Impact, an organisation who are set about ending homelessness for good, using, they say, evidence-led decisions, asked the public about their thoughts on homelessness. They found that 71 per cent of people thought Britain doesn’t pay enough attention to homelessness. And while I would point everybody to the almost 30 years of shoulder to the wheel work from The Big Issue, this presents an opportunity. If almost three quarters of the population believe more attention needs to be paid, then we are at a crossroads for real change.

The twin mountains to conquer to end homelessness – helping those in it get out of it and preventing those at risk from falling in at all – are clear. Due to the pandemic, they are as clear as they’ve been in a generation, or maybe longer.

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Rough sleeping and street homelessness can be eradicated. It happened, briefly last spring. And while a big number of people will have fallen back into homelessness, it lifted many from a life they felt they were trapped in forever. It won’t be as easy again because the wide availability of hotel rooms brought about by Covid restrictions is not likely to be repeated. But with smart thinking, money, evidence-based successes like Housing First, there is a solution.

The tougher part is prevention. The battle to stop potential mass evictions that could come as the pace of job creation fails to match the speed at which the furlough scheme ends is going to be one of the toughest Britain will meet. But ideas and solutions exist, such as government-backed rent amnesties for those who have been smacked into arrears through the crisis.

Boris Johnson is very keen on repeating his ‘levelling-up’ mantra at every turn. There exists now a clear opportunity to embrace and back those people working to prevent a terrible wave of homelessness. That would mean delivering more than mere rhetoric. The positive impact for tens of thousands of people would change things for years to come.

Let’s see where this goes.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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