Jon's blog

Jon Kuhrt is Executive Director of West London Mission.

The politics of rough sleeping

The image of a rough sleeper is powerful and moving. It creates strong feelings of distress, anger, sympathy and bewilderment among most people. I think it is because homelessness captures something raw and fundamental about poverty. It brings together both personal tragedy and political failure.

Behind each rough sleeper there is always a personal story which will involve trauma, rejection, pain and many difficulties. Everyone’s story is different – a complex fusion of how events and circumstances have collided with personal frailty or poor fortune which have resulted in them being on the streets.

But it’s wrong to see homelessness purely as the outcome of personal problems. A large chunk of the issue relates to politic. This is because it is an issue so affected by the government’s social and economic agenda.

Back in the late 1980s a Tory minister, Sir George Young, reputedly said ‘The homeless?  Aren’t they the people you step over when you came out of the opera?’ It became a famous quote became of the gulf it exposed between those in power and the realities on the street.

But the scale of rough sleeping in that period meant it could not be ignored. The first Rough Sleeper Initiative was started in 1990 by Margaret Thatcher in response to the embarrassing numbers of younger people sleeping rough around Westminster and Whitehall.

But the problem did not go away.  Seven years later, Tony Blair established his Social Exclusion Unit with one key target being to cut rough sleeping in London by two-thirds.  When he became Mayor, Boris Johnson pledged to eliminate rough sleeping completely by 2012.

Officially, Blair was successful in reaching this target; Johnson did not come close. And, despite new initiatives, the numbers sleeping rough since has increased considerably. According to official figures rough sleeping has risen over 50% in the last five years.

Many of the causes of homelessness are rooted in political decisions: benefit changes, lack of affordable housing, austerity and deepening economic inequality.

WHAT is a great opportunity for us all to learn more about homelessness and what can be done about it. Through the interviews we do with homeless people, we’ll learn more about the personal stories of hardship and difficulties.

But we must never forget the wider context which leads to more and more people ending up on the streets. Let’s hope WHAT is a catalyst to increase political pressure on the government and the Greater London Authority (GLA) to invest properly to reduce rough sleeping.

Homelessness is a personal tragedy – but it’s also a political scandal. And, as Desmond Tutu said, “We should not just be pulling people out of the river – we need to go upstream and find out who is pushing them in.”