The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign lays out a nine-point plan to prevent “an avalanche” of homelessness hitting the UK.
It’s very strange but when I ask people what they think about the threat of mass homelessness, they refer to getting people out of rough sleeping.
I say getting people out of rough sleeping is a very pressing need. But this very pressing need can take the focus off the thousands who could, through pandemic-created poverty, be evicted; and they and their children could end up sofa surfing into temporary accommodation and head first into homelessness.
People then talk about the need to end rough sleeping as if it’s too difficult to realise that people who become homeless could become rough sleepers. And that the mathematics of social collapse thrown up by Covid is enormous.
The reason for the campaign is that people are now being evicted at the rate of one every 63 minutes, and eviction will nearly always lead to being pushed into homelessness.
A mass of homeless people – perhaps up to half a million – would destabilise this country.
This is far bigger homelessness than we have ever suffered in modern times. When we started The Big Issue there might have been up to 20,000 rough sleepers in our big cities. But imagine 100,000 rough sleepers coming on to the streets in the next year.
And homelessness is incredibly expensive. It could cost in the region of two times what it would cost to keep people in their homes.
So keeping people in their homes, paying their rent or mortgage, paying off their arrears, supporting them in the emergency, and getting them into work again, or into skills enhancement so they could change jobs, is vastly more sensible than letting people slip into homelessness.
This is bigtime homelessness prevention, and people who I talk to – ministers, MPs, even activists – can’t quite get the crisis we are facing.
They are bewitched by the current social malaise that is thrown up by poor thinking around the un-homed (a term I prefer because we are going to have a lot of un-homing if the stats of potential evictions are right).
Of course I admire people’s concerns for the currently homeless. But prevention should mean that the more we keep people out of the homeless equation, the more we can push resources towards those who are currently un-homed.
So our campaign gains strength as we move nearer and nearer to the abyss. And you – please say yes! – could be a part of it. We are recruiting people to be an itchy arse in their own constituencies. Bombard their local MP with info about how people may fall homeless because of the crisis.
What crisis? The 500,000 who are behind in their rent or mortgage payments. What crisis? The potentially evictable because their landlords need their money as income.
We are trained to cough up when something goes wrong. But not to prevent
Around 70 per cent of the mailbag of the average MP and their surgeries is about problems around housing. This could go through the roof if the roughly one million who were still on furlough at the end of September translate into job losses and therefore evictions.
So we are asking people to gather information in their own constituency and send it to us so that we can use it to put pressure on MPs to push the government into braving up.
The problem of course is that society and its governments always respond to emergencies. We are trained to cough up when something goes wrong. But not to prevent.
The Treasury is notorious for spending in the emergency but being loath to prevent the crisis from happening in the first place. The government last year spent a fortune on emergency. But trying to get them to spend on preventing a new emergency in the lives of many has as yet borne little fruit.
People in politics often ask me, why do you wish to spend so much money on prevention? I say because we are spending much more now on patching things up. Not on cure. Not on prevention. But on holding people’s hands. Condemning people to a lifetime of need.
The ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than a fence at the top makes up nearly all government social thinking
Of course, if we had creative government, rather than the tired old system we have now – each new government taking over a badly functioning structure – then we would not put up with the current level of spend when things go wrong.
The ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than a fence at the top makes up nearly all government social thinking.
With some little, more ambitious initiatives around the edges to look good. This eviction crisis is the perfect opportunity for the government to reinvent itself as prevention-driven.
If they did this, they would be setting the tone for a revival of our economy, for getting more people out of dependency. And for a lift-off of social opportunity for many caught in poverty.
But all of this requires a thoughtfulness and a depth of imagination that would mean the Treasury having to reinvent budgeting. Budget for prevention and not for post-crisis repair.
Imagine what kind of world we would live in if it was a prevention world!
Stop Mass Homelessness is the thing we and the world need to embrace. What a leap is that! Are you going to be itchy?
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. @johnbirdswords
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