During the cold winter months, like most Londoners' minds, mine is focused on the plight of the homeless. When I launched my campaign, I even floated the idea of holding GLA meetings regionally and instead using City Hall to house them. I've since been persuaded not only of the need for London to have a landmark institution but more to the point, that Mr Livingstone signed a lease so draconian that not even Harry Houdini could get out of it.
Last Christmas, when so much attention was focused on the plight of veterans unable to cope after leaving the services, I was sent on an amazing journey of discovery. In fact, I discovered that the idea of using City Hall as a homeless shelter was not such a crazy idea after all.
Reactive Help For Homelessness
C4WS a Camden based charity, operates winter night shelters in thirteen churches throughout Camden. They house fifteen people a time and they are staffed by volunteers. They rotate churches so that most only spring into action once every two weeks - which is a manageable target for local volunteers.
Mobile, almost 'pop-up' shelters that take people off the street for the night once a week and, equally importantly, engage the local community play a huge part in the London homeless relief jigsaw. There's no reason why City businesses and institutions shouldn't run with this idea too. And City Hall would be the perfect location to launch this move, even if it was only symbolic.
Some City executives struggle to help employees feel relevant and to bond them together, learning skills that make them rounded and effective managers. Currently, they send them paintballing in Berkshire, but anyone that has got stuck in helping the homeless or other sorts of charitable giving will know there are better ways of building teams, having fun and giving back to all communities in London. This is exactly the sort of activity that responsible business should encourage, and could finally replace 90's 'executive bungee-jumping'.
Whilst vital, these ways of helping homeless people are not the long-term solution to the problem. We need to tackle head-on the barriers to homeless people getting back into work, getting back into homes, and staying off the streets for good. Whether it is as simple as clothing for an interview or helping people with mental health or addiction problems, there is so much that can and should be done.
A Sustainable, Long-Term Plan Is Needed
First, I want to dispel the food and bed myth for the homeless. Yes there are hundreds of people who go hungry and sleep rough every night, but there are also countless soup runs, church kitchens, and many thousands of hostel and emergency beds. What we need to do is understand why some people don't want or get the help they need, and why some others don't move out of homelessness despite this sort of help. It is widely acknowledged that those who choose this as a genuine lifestyle are people whose perspective has been warped by drug and alcohol use. Only they can decide when enough is enough. Anyone who has any experience of addiction will know that the only person that can solve this problem is the individual - no one else can make them stop.
The vast majority of people who are made homeless are desperate to get out of these places and need more than simply shelter and today's menu of Pret a Manger hand-outs. They need someone to believe in them and give them the tools necessary to lift them out of their situation.
This week I visited Crisis, a charity started by two compassionate and visionary Conservative politicians - William Shearman and Ian Macleod - in 1967, a year after Cathy Come Home, runs such a programme. They help thousands of people all year round into jobs, back into family life, out of addiction, and into a stable home. They also run Crisis at Christmas which so many fellow Londoners help to make the biggest volunteering operation in the country. I cannot thank them enough for the insight they gave me, adding to my thinking on how as Mayor I will make this a key issue.
So What Will I Do?
The most important thing is to catch people before it's too late - the No Second Night Out initiative created by Boris as a key commitment of his London Delivery Board. It's amazing and needs to be expanded throughout London - this approach scoops people up, they hope, after the first night they hit the streets and gets them into a system that everyone hopes will result in them getting housed. Currently, it's a little too focussed on central London but the reality is the problem is very serious in the outer boroughs too, and the expansion of the scheme to 'No First Night Out' is another great idea from Boris.
More emphasis needs to be placed on advising people on their options at hostels and shelters, rather than tipping them out on the streets at 10 o'clock to sit by cash machines. It seems obvious, but at the moment it's down to organizations like Crisis to manage this - which is too much for one organisation and doesn't make the most of the public money and systems that should and could already help more.
There's a lot the Mayor of London can do. I intend to double the GLA's current budget for this with money raised through the new Londoners' Fund, which is supported by such measures as the London Lottery and the Hotel Tax. Moreover, Crisis impressed on me the role that the Mayor can play as an 'ambassador' for homelessness, by actively working with other countries and communities to understand the patterns of behaviour that cause these problems.
As someone who's encountered addiction at a very personal level, I'll be focusing on alcohol and drug use in that section of the community where the disease of addiction has closed them away from advancing their lives, which means taking a hard line on drug addiction and alcoholism.
Homelessness is a serious problem for London but it can be solved. Let's work together to do it.