A sleeping bag and a grotty quilt in a shop doorway. A threadbare sofa in someone’s front room, for a night or two only. The back seat of a bus parked up in the depot. This is the fate of quite literally countless people in our country this Christmas. Did you know that there are no official figures on homelessness? Not one Government department or organisation is in charge of collating information. No wonder our understanding of the issues is often limited and prejudiced, and available help sporadic or difficult to access.
What is known, however, thanks to research undertaken by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is that at least 16 people living as homeless have died in our region this year, and rough sleeping is up in Yorkshire and the Humber by at least 30 per cent. These are not figures to be proud of. However, I am proud of my 13-year-old daughter Lizzie, and her modest attempt to help. She’s a generous soul by nature. At this time of year, there isn’t a friend or relation she forgets about. Christmas shopping with her is a lesson in thoughtfulness.
This year, however, there was one present in particular she paid especial care to – her shoebox for the homeless. We heard more about this shoebox, part of a charity drive run by her school, than the rest of the presents she bought put together. Two lots of shower gel, male and female. Ditto deodorant. Two tubes of toothpaste to go with the donated toothbrushes the school had acquired. Two flannels and, most importantly of all, a packet of festive dog treats and a chew to keep canine teeth clean. As Lizzie pointed out, a lot of homeless people have dogs and often these are their most precious and trustworthy companions. They should not be forgotten.
All too often though, the homeless are. Lizzie’s shoebox touched my heart, but tackling the problems of those who live without a home or survive in insecure accommodation demands more than a couple of tubes of toothpaste and a packet of dog treats. It requires compassionate government policy and a joint approach which pulls together the resources of the NHS, the police, social services and charitable organisations.
One of the major challenges is ensuring that the right help goes to the right people, and that precious resources are not wasted or duplicated.
I learned about this first-hand many years ago, and it shaped my perception of homeless people for life. When I was in my early 20s, I was privileged to spend several years volunteering at St Boltoph’s homelessness project in the East End of London.
Based in the crypt of an ancient church, the initiative started as a soup kitchen in the 1950s. By the time I was helping out, we were serving up to 200 individuals every evening.
My work was simple. I gave out food, hot drinks and in those days, cigarettes, under the supervision of a group of indomitable retired ladies, many of whom were Londoners who had lived through the Blitz.
They taught me never to judge, and always to be aware that each of us could be a moment away from losing it all. I met women who had forfeited their homes through domestic violence, ex-servicemen who couldn’t cope with civilian society, elderly people with no families to care for them and individuals simply stranded by life.
Sadly, St Boltoph’s fell into insolvency in 2004, its work overtaken by larger groups and organisations. The problem still is not so much that there isn’t enough help available, but that too many people think that homelessness is someone else’s problem. In August, there was much fanfare over the Government’s rough sleeping strategy, which pumped £100m into preventing homelessness by providing timely support to those at risk, intervening to help people already on the streets get swift, targeted support and helping individuals recover, find a new home quickly and rebuild their lives.
The stated aim was to halve rough sleeping on England’s streets by 2022 and end it altogether by 2027. This is ambitious, given that every town and city in the country still has its homeless population camping out in graveyards and sleeping in public parks.
What hope have we of seeing progress, you might ask, when Westminster is in such disarray? It is yet another thing which Brexit has drained of time, monitoring and resources. Yet MPs cannot hide from homelessness. Indeed, they step over the bodies of sleeping people in front of the Houses of Parliament itself.
As they make their way home to their constituencies this Christmas to sit on their comfortable sofas in front of their roaring log fires, they should think not of themselves, but of those who don’t even have a roof over their heads. If my Lizzie can, they can too.