Last December, a charity asked me to write an article about the experience of homeless folks in London at Christmastime. Due to an unbridled guilt - aware of the ridiculous amount of turkey and whiskey I consume at that time of year - I was happy to accept. I went to a shelter near Hammersmith and asked volunteers and occupants about their personal experience with homelessness.
A few of these conversations inevitably strayed into politics. Each individual demonstrated, perhaps unsurprisingly, a level of ambivalence towards our current politicians. The main complaint was that, despite a massive rise in homelessness, there was no political discourse surrounding the issue.
This was less than six months before the general election. I asked some of these people if they thought a Labour victory would bring change. One bloke thought Ed Miliband could help for the homeless; another argued things could get worst. Most folks simply shrugged, adopting the hackneyed 'they are all as bad as each other' sentiment.
One man, Tony, went into more detail. He explained why Tory austerity was so detrimental to the homeless community - cuts to benefits, lack of social housing and so on - and yet he refused to praise any other major party, as they apparently failed to offer an alternative. The homeless, he explained, were asking questions of their politicians and no party would provide any answers. Tony joked about creating his own party - the 'Homeless Party' - in an attempt to put homelessness on the political agenda. I said I would vote for him.
It's been nearly ten months since I went to the shelter in Hammersmith. For seven of those months, homelessness has remained in the political wilderness - barely mentioned in frontline politics. In the last few months, however, an individual has emerged who seems prepared to tackle this issue. Since becoming leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn has addressed homelessness in several speeches. In his victory speech, Corbyn said, 'we want to live in a society where we don't pass by those people rejected by an unfair welfare system. Instead we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society.'
Corbyn has been fighting to tackle homelessness since before I was born. In a clip from 1990, in perhaps his first appearance on public television, Corbyn is seen berating Margaret Thatcher for presiding over a huge rise in homelessness during her government. He angrily remarks that it is a 'disgrace in a civilised country' that more and more people are living on the streets.
Now, Corbyn is suggesting that no one, in one of the richest countries in the world, should find themselves homeless. This could be interpreted as a lefty soundbite, but he has developed policies to address this issue. Corbyn has suggested he will reverse cuts to welfare that, as Tony explained, inexorably leave people homeless. He has proposed a massive house-building programme that will lower rents and make housing affordable. And, perhaps most importantly, he has sought to address mental health issues affecting the homeless, suggesting that 70% of folks on the street have mental health problems and almost half have attempted suicide.
This is a start.
We are approaching Christmas and at this time of year folks seem to care more about those living on the streets. There are obvious reasons for this: the cold weather garners sympathy, there is pressure to be charitable, our expenditure on unnecessary material items seems profligate, and there emerges a general mood of thankfulness for our lot in this life.
This temporary altruism is certainly welcome, but we should remember that folks sleep on the streets all year round. Unfortunately, as Tony and some of the other people I spoke to realised, to exact long-lasting change we have to rely on collective action, often calling on indifferent politicians. It is a refreshing turn of events, therefore, to have a powerful man such as Corbyn challenging the status quo and putting homelessness on the political agenda.
I wonder if the folks in the shelter would continue to shrug if I asked them if there was any hope on the horizon. I wonder if they, like me, finally see a source of optimism in Jeremy Corbyn.