Why isn't homelessness an election priority? Because many people don't believe it could happen to them

As part of The Guardian’s ‘The Empty Doorway’ series, they are looking behind the statistics “to tell the stories of some of those who have died on Britain’s streets.” A recent article posed the question “Why isn’t it an election priority?”

The following extract is taken from said article: “According to the last Shelter report, at least 320,000 people are homeless, almost 5,000 are rough sleeping rough (likely to be a huge underestimate) and 726 people died homeless in England and Wales in 2018 (a 22% rise from 2017). It’s likely that most of those deaths occurred on the streets or in emergency or temporary accommodation.”

We know that more and more people are concerned about street homelessness, whatever the reason. The current Prime Minister himself is quoted as saying “it’s scandalous that in 21st century London, people have to resort to sleeping on the streets.” Yet over those last ten years, rough sleeping has more than doubled - and in some areas trebled. So what’s going on?

Having worked in this field for some 40 years, there seems to be different reasons why people care about this situation. Some are altruistic about the dreadful lives homeless people are forced to endure. Others may think (quite wrongly) that homeless people have a choice and see street homelessness purely as an eye sore.

But for politicians it ought to be an embarrassment, since rough sleeping is the clearest possible evidence of failed social policies in this country. If lives are the price of austerity then, in my opinion, it’s far too high a price to pay.

Why isn’t homelessness a key issue in every party manifesto? Well in my experience, it’s one of those things that people generally believe doesn’t directly affect them. For many it won’t - but believe me - that’s more by luck than judgement.

I gave a talk recently to a group of hospital volunteers in Stratford on Avon Hospital who have raised funds for several years. I told the story of a man we had taken into our emergency accommodation. He was bedraggled, dirty, unkempt and uncommunicative. The typical stereotype the tabloids like so much. He would stay for a few days, then leave, before coming back a few months later. This happened several times, but he never stayed long enough for us to build a rapport and link him into other support services or claim welfare benefits. Then on one visit he revealed a piece of paper with a name and address of a law firm in Exeter. We rang them to see if anybody could throw any light on this man. We were told that he had had a serious mental breakdown and his wife had been unable to cope and he had left the family home - but this was just the tip of the iceberg. The man we were trying to help had not been a client of the law firm; he had been the senior partner.

Don’t believe it can’t happen to you.