Last week I attended the inaugural meeting of the new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending Homelessness. APPGs exist on all kinds of issues but this one attracted my attention for the bold ambition in its name. Many would say that ending homelessness is an unachievable ambition. But if you want to end a deep cause of misery you need to aim high.
There are currently about 2,750 people sleeping rough in England every night. The number of people in temporary accommodation is around 68,500 and the number of statutory homeless is about 53,500. Many are surprised at the number of rough sleepers with most guessing that it would be much higher than that figure. Of course these numbers fluctuate but if you, like me, feel a sense of society’s failure when you see a huddled figure sleeping in a doorway, this is a problem that needs nailing. If the fifth largest economy in the world can’t deal with two or three thousand rough sleepers then what can we do?
Tackling the reasons for homelessness is at the heart of new initiatives coming from organisations like The Centre for Social Justice and Crisis. Single homeless people are likely to have faced considerable challenges in their lives, 64% have been unemployed, 49% have suffered from poor mental health, 48% from drug dependency, 46% from alcohol dependency, and 41% have spent time in prison. About a fifth have suffered domestic abuse, about a quarter spent time in care as a child, and about a sixth have literacy problems. Tellingly, around 80% have a least one support issue, while more than half had faced four or more.
In West Berkshire we have wonderful organisations like Loose Ends which provide meals, clothes and advice for rough sleepers. There is the Two Saints hostel that does much more than just provide beds. These bodies are invaluable but they would be the first to agree that they are not able to provide the means to end most cases of homelessness. This requires a holistic approach to tackling all the factors in each homeless person’s life. We have to see what works well in communities in Britain and around the world and roll that out across the country. This will mean money and determination and the kind of high ambition that wants to end the problem for good.
On Saturday I joined teams of volunteers in Newbury and Stanford Dingley to pick up litter. Clean for the Queen is a national campaign and a wonderfully practical way to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. Britain is getting a spring clean from John O’Groats to Lands End. The team I was with in Victoria Park had gathered several sacks full in a few minutes. Stanford Dingley is one of the most picture postcard perfect English villages, but even there volunteers gathered about two dozen bags of rubbish. Anyone who has followed my scribblings will know I have an aversion to litter. The worst areas seem to be alongside our main roads. Just who is chucking their detritus over our green and pleasant land? Who are you? We want you behind bars! And don’t get me started on fly tippers.
We have vast expensive electric signs on our motorways to warn us of hazards ahead. Most of the time they boss us with banal statements about not driving when tired or about keeping a distance from the car in front. I might suggest to the Highways Agency that these signs say, “If you throw litter out of your car window you will be nicked”. Of course this means we have to prosecute litterers not just ignore this anti-social crime.
Bizarrely I was pursued around Newbury by half a dozen protestors who seemed to be, among other things, outraged that litter was being picked by volunteers not paid Council workers. Of course Council workers do pick litter but we would need hundreds more to cope with the depressing use-it-then-chuck-it culture. As someone who has voluntarily picked litter most of my life I am truly amazed at the mind-set that says everything has to be done by the state. Perhaps these protestors also believe that those who volunteer to drive the sick to hospital are stealing work from the NHS or that community flood wardens should be full time Environment Agency staff.
Anyway Ma’am, we have made a start. Similar litter picks are planned for Hungerford, Thatcham and many villages and I congratulate all who get involved with this worthy cause.