I spoke out in Parliament recently about an upsetting case I was dealing with where a vulnerable man had resorted to sleeping in a bin chamber in Noel Park. It is 2018 and we are one of the world’s biggest economies, yet this tragic case could have come right out of a Dickensian novel. Sadly, he’s not unusual. Walk under the bridge at Finsbury Park and you will see the belongings and bedding of people who have set up home there.
Homelessness and rough sleeping should not be seen as inevitable in a country as well-off as ours. Yet since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough has more than doubled – with the latest figures revealing a 169% increase, the highest on record. On top of that is the hidden homeless, the families left in supposedly temporary accommodation for two years or those living on a friend’s sofa because they have nowhere else to go. It is a scandal, but not a surprising one when these years have seen a steep drop in investment for new affordable homes; over £5 billion cut from housing benefit; soaring rents in the private sector and significant cuts to funding for homelessness services.
Yet in the midst of this gloom, there are people working to make a difference. In October last year Muswell Hill Soup Kitchen launched a website that directs homeless people to help. Using GPS technology, their website www.nextmeal.co.uk points the user to their nearest hot meal, shelter or advice centre.
Inspired by seeing technology at bus-stops showing when to expect the next bus, Next Meal is a simple response to the human stories behind the stark statistics and makes it easier for members of the public to help. Next Meal cards, explaining the service, are available to download from the website and since launching it’s now helping more than 40 rough sleepers a day in London and has connected with over 120 community support centres across England and Scotland. The experience of Next Meal has been that many rough sleepers have a smart phone, or at least access to one and the very act of handing over a card is a chance for the human and humane contact that so many rough sleepers lack. Of course it isn’t in itself a solution, but it is a way of showing humanity to some of the most vulnerable in our society. I’m absolutely delighted that Martin Stone, my constituent, who has been the director of Muswell Hill Soup Kitchen for over 10 years, has recently received the Prime Minister’s ‘Point of Light’ award for his work.
In recent weeks the Government has published its strategy to end rough sleeping by 2027, accompanied by £50 million funding, and finally bowed to pressure and agreed supported housing and homeless hostels can continue to be funded through housing benefit. This is extremely welcome, but it is nowhere near enough. 2027 is a distant dream for people like the man living in the bin shelter in Noel Park. I’d like to see 8,000 genuinely affordable homes made available now for people with a history of sleeping on the streets, a firm pledge to tackle the root causes of rising homelessness and adequate funding for the support services that do such crucial work.
People are slipping through the cracks, and as a society we must ensure that the poorest and the most vulnerable have access to welfare and housing.