Opinion

Lord Cashman: Shout out about hidden homelessness. Change will come from us

"That this happens in the fifth-largest economy in the world is as shocking as it is shameful," writes the Labour peer

During the second week of September this year, as Britain bathed itself in one of the hottest days, we gathered in the House of Lords for a short one-hour debate on the crisis of homelessness. And it is a crisis which is not diminishing.

The Lords have discussed this issue many times before, pushing successive governments to do more, build more, and as John (Lord) Bird, the founder of The Big Issue said, to tackle the root causes of homelessness. And there are many.

For me this is a deeply personal issue. As I said in the debate it affects every single one of us, and indeed at any one time we each could become homeless.

Women and men and, yes, children, sleeping without secure accommodation or a roof or tree over their head have not chosen that way. It occurs for many reasons, sometimes a single factor, or many, but it could happen to me as it could happen to you. My point is that if we would not want it to happen to us how dare we allow it to happen to somebody else?

Homelessness is all around us. It is not only those we see sleeping rough

I was fortunate, I was born in a council flat in London’s east end at the height of the post-war housebuilding boom when council housing was considered essential. A roof over your head and basic sanitation were considered necessities. They were seen as an investment not in housing capital but as an investment in people and in the long-term benefit of the country and the economy.

Yes, council housing, social housing is an investment in people – and we have got to move away from seeing property purely as capital investments.

Homelessness is all around us. It is not only those we see sleeping rough – and the ever-increasing numbers in London’s west end – as it was during the 1980s – it is beyond our cities and it is also hidden. Sometimes we hide it from our own view but homelessness is largely unspoken of and hidden.

There are people who are homeless who work, whose families and friends have no idea they are homeless. They are the people who we see travelling to work on the trains, who serve us in the service industries and elsewhere, who work beside us – they have no permanent fixed abode.

Women and men getting by as they sofa surf, find cheap hotels and last-minute deals, they are in squats, staying with friends until their friends tire of them. And then they move on. Until sometimes there is nowhere else to move on to.

Some are ‘fortunate’ in getting into temporary accommodation or living in shelters but these places are diminishing too.

That this happens in the fifth-largest economy in the world is as shocking as it is shameful.

And it is getting worse, with demand increasing, housing stock decreasing, and rents rising, shared rooms, and flat-shares now out of the reach of most people on an average wage.

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Every day I see some of the reality of people living on our streets, in our parks, trying to capture during the day the sleep they were deprived of during the night.

If we open our eyes we can see.

I have been fortunate indeed, and humbled, to see the work of our homeless charities and organisations, such as Crisis, especially at Christmas.

These organisations are dealing with men and women whose lives could be turned around if they had a home, a sense of permanence in their lives. People who often because of their circumstances experience mental health problems and general health problems too. The one exacerbating the other until these women and men – of all ages – find themselves in a spiral beyond their control.

People are at multiple risk too, not only their health but from sexual and physical abuse.

Women and minorities and young people are particularly vulnerable.

As a gay man I know too well the discrimination we have faced, and still face. In 2014 an LGBT youth homelessness report by The Albert Kennedy Trust found that nearly 5,000 young LGBT people in the UK were currently homeless or living in hostile environments – that’s a quarter of the youth homeless population in the UK. More than two thirds of LGBT homeless youth are highly likely to have experienced familial rejection, abuse and violence, and believe their sexuality or gender identity was the overriding factor in their rejection from home. That is a devastating reality and indictment of society.

Furthermore LGBT young people are less likely to seek help or support because they fear a real lack of understanding of the experience of LGBT homeless youth. An assumption of heterosexuality by some service providers poses additional risks of discrimination. The findings from the report have led The Albert Kennedy Trust to conclude that homeless LGBT young people are one of the most disenfranchised and marginalised groups within the UK.

This is not to single out one group as more deserving but to highlight how discrimination on so many different levels – race, ethnicity, religion, belief, age, disability, gender or gender identity to mention just a few – will compound the inhumanity of homelessness.

Being homeless is a reality that any one of us can face if our circumstances change – and they often do.

If you would not want to sleep without a roof over your head, make sure no one else does.

The government will not move forward on its own – the call, indeed the scream for progress must come from the electorate – then politicians will listen intently and act.

Raise your voice. And imagine. Imagine.

Baron Michael Cashman is a Labour peer and former EastEnders actor

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