In 2014, the Pavement asked me to write an article about life in homeless shelters at Christmastime. I remember feeling nervous. My idea of such shelters relied on distortions in popular culture and George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. The Crisis centre I visited, however, was surprisingly delightful. It was set-up in a modern venue with hallucinogenic colours sprawled across high-arching ceilings. Contemporary art graced the walls and visitors sat on garish sofas cracking jokes. The atmosphere was one of cheerfulness.
The innovative methods Crisis used to prevent homelessness also surprised me. I expected little more than uncomfortable beds and unappetising grub. Instead, I witnessed visitors receiving a free haircut and a medical check-up before tucking into something delectable. Some of the homeless folks talked to volunteers just to vent while others worked on their CVs. The centre was inspired. It didn't just offer a place to stay: it offered long-term, life-changing solutions.
That Christmas, I spoke to staff, volunteers and guests at the Crisis centre. Perhaps it was the looming general election, or perhaps it was just the natural state of affairs, but each conversation routinely led to politics. There was an evident hopelessness in these political discussions. One volunteer, Tony, who was once street homeless but had received help from Crisis two years prior to our conversation, summed up this feeling: 'politicians don't bother talking about the homeless,' he told me, 'and they certainly don't care'. Each guest invariably echoed Tony's sentiment.
Despite their incredible work, charities supporting rough sleepers are struggling at present. Homelessness has increased massively since David Cameron and his band of austerity-pushing brothers came to power. A report earlier in 2016 revealed that under Cameron's administration homelessness among English households has risen by 54 per cent since 2010. This rise is an inevitable effect of cutting public service expenditure, as everyone I spoke to at the Crisis centre readily acknowledged.
Politicians seldom address homelessness because, despite the widespread growth in relative terms, rough sleeping rarely affects the average self-interested voter. Only a tiny proportion of the population are homeless and thus offering such people help, particularly considering their understandable political antipathy, fails to attract mainstream politicians. When I visited the Crisis centre in 2014, the major parties were competing to convince the public of their economic frugality. In an age of austerity, promising funding for the homeless was ostensibly foolish.
The allegiance to austerity, while always economically contentious, is dissipating among the political mainstream. We are witnessing a shift in economic policy on the right, which follows a more radical shift on the left. The Homelessness Reduction Bill, which has just passed its second reading, is a result of this shift in the Overton window: once purportedly objectionable policies are now politically acceptable.
With this newfound freedom for mainstream politicians to talk about homelessness, the Homelessness Reduction Bill seems promising. According to Theresa May, the Bill will award funding to local authorities and promote innovative ideas to prevent rough sleeping. This focus on both localism and innovation is essential.
Offering funding to local authorities ensures the right funding reaches the right people. It compensates for a disparity of unique problems. Issues confronting the rural homeless inexorably differ from issues facing the homeless in cities, for example, and thus the focus on localism can reflect the complex and individual needs of rough sleepers.
Promoting innovation is equally essential. Homeless charities have successfully utilised innovative methods in the past that have achieved long-term results. The Big Issue, for example, affords the homeless the opportunity to help themselves through personal income based on their commitment. This empowering ideal forms the basis of all serious preventative policies. Similarly, as I experienced, Crisis offers long-term solutions by preparing the homeless for vocational and housing opportunities with advice, information and support. Both charities - and there are plenty of others worth mentioning - invest in the homeless, offering them a voice and a sense of hope. It seems obvious that the government should seek to work with such charities.
We are at a critical juncture in the fight against rough sleeping. In the misguided pursuit of economic credibility, homelessness is an issue that British politicians of the past ignored for far too long. With attention to detail, and a serious focus on localism and innovation, the Homelessness Reduction Bill could go some distance towards righting this wrong. It is still underfunded, and hopefully the prospect additional funds will be raised during the Third Reading, but it is a step, perhaps only a small step, in the right direction. Charities have accomplished truly incredible feats with limited resources, but now the government needs to take some responsibility.