You don't need to have read news reports about the benefits cap, the withdrawal of housing benefit for younger claimants or how jobcentre staff are being set targets for sanctioning claimants to understand that this government's policies are creating a rising tide of homelessness.
If you walk round the East Northamptonshire I grew up in the rise in the visible signs of homelessness are stark. Seeing a homeless man, like the Houses of Parliament, use to be reserved for school trips to London. Now the homeless can be seen sheltering in shop doorways in Kettering, Wellingborough and Corby. Depressingly, with the steady rise of homelessness also comes the rise of vicious, hate fuelled, assaults.
As part of my responsibilities as a Director of Northamptonshire Rights and Equalities Council (NREC) I have decided to base myself once a month in Johnny's Happy Place (JHP), Kettering to see if there are people who need to talk to someone about the discrimination they've experienced. JHP is a remarkable project, set up after Johnny McKay was let down by the very services established to look after him and took his own life. The 'pay what you can afford' cafe was set up to provide a safe space for anyone who needed a cup of coffee, a hot meal or just to sit in the company of others without being judged or made to feel uncomfortable.
Saturday was my first stint, more a scoping exercise than a clinic this time, and it was great to meet the volunteers, enjoy the homemade beef stew and do some craft activities with other diners. Inevitably the number of homeless people who need places like this has risen and these now make up the majority of diners. Looking around you can't help but conclude that you are amongst some of the most vulnerable people in society. Talking to Denise, who founded JHP after her son's suicide, I am told of incident after incident of these men and women being subjected to the most vile treatment. Pissed on while they sleep, late night revellers setting fire to their bedding or being forced to perform sex acts. These people are being victimised because of who they are, yet because it's not about their religion, the colour of their skin or their sexuality these inhuman incidents are not counted as hate crimes. A hate crime is when the victim is targeted because of one of the nine characteristics protected by the Equality Act (2010).
I appreciate that there is a qualitative difference between homelessness and the characteristics protected under the Equality Act. Homelessness is both undesirable and temporal, whereas race, gender, religion, sexuality etc... are to be enjoyed, if not celebrated, and are permanent. However, the justification for treating some crimes as hate crimes is to identify that being motivated by hatred of another because they belong to a certain class of individuals different from oneself makes the assailant more culpable and deserving of greater punishment. Although the detection, and therefore prosecution, rate is low and the deterrence effect arguably nil the message that a society sends by uniting in the face of hatred and standing shoulder to shoulder with our brothers, sisters and non-binary siblings is powerful.
It is true that there is a simple solution to homelessness - fund more homes. But while we wait for progressive solutions to be realised there are also simple things that we as individuals can do to demonstrate compassion, grabbing a coffee and a slice of cake at JHP and making others feel welcome is one thing, asking your MP to extend the definition of hate crime to include homelessness is another, or simplest of all you can click here and add your name to my petition to raise awareness around this important issue.
If you think you would benefit from the advice that NREC offer then either visit their website or call in and see me at JHP, I'll be there from 12-2pm on Saturday 8 April, Saturday 13 May and Saturday 17 June.