On Saturday the Labour Party in Croydon held the first in a series of policy forums to shape the manifesto on which we will defend our council majority next year. As we navigate a housing crisis on the Conservative Housing and Planning Minister’s doorstep, we invited Labour Campaign to End Homelessness Chair Sam Stopp to our panel on the power of Labour councils to tackle homelessness, and the limitations we face.
For decades housing has increasingly been seen as a private problem, not something for Governments to tackle or for which communities share responsibility. Charities and social housing workers have been warning of a growing housing crisis for years, to little effect. But something is changing. While 46% of British people opposed new housing developments in their local area in 2010, by 2014 this had fallen to just 21%. Asked to name the most important issues facing the country, voters are now 3 times more likely to raise housing compared to 2009.
Housing concerns are becoming mainstreamed, but this is almost entirely due to the fading of the homeownership dream. Croydon shares this story with the rest of the county: rising prices, falling ownership, more reliance on an unaffordable and insecure private rented sector, more overcrowding and adults living with their parents into their 30s. As the country’s dominant and most desirable tenure has moved out of reach for the children and grandchildren of current owners, the housing crisis has become real for voters who were previously isolated from it, and gained a new political urgency as a result. I regularly speak to voters desperate for the Government to act so their sons and daughters can stay in the area they grew up in.
The question for me is: how can we achieve the same visibility and urgency for homelessness?
Labour councils like ours have worked hard to tackle an austerity-driven crisis in homelessness. Croydon has leased two large office blocks to increase the availability and room sizes of emergency accommodation, integrated services in housing, benefits, debt management and social care assessment in an award-winning Gateway service, boosted supply by ramping up its own housing development programme, and has pulled out all the stops to ensure that not one family has been evicted since the lowering of the Benefit Cap. We are swimming against the tide, but the council has refused to tolerate a version of Croydon in which families sleep on streets or in cramped single rooms.
Precisely because of these efforts, the brutal reality of homelessness is often hidden from view. Despite the council’s work, nearly half of Croydon’s homeless families have been living in temporary accommodation for more than three years, and the single men who make up the majority of those forced to sleep rough are a shifting population, moving between shelters, sofa surfing and the streets. Homeless people are a growing part of Croydon’s reality, but they are often separate from and invisible to the housed population.
One response to this lies in outreach work of the kind developed and promoted by the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness. When Labour activists come together to get essential supplies where they are needed, we are not only showing solidarity with the individual homeless people we reach. We also start a slow but transformative change in how people understand their local housing crisis.
Outreach work provides a practical way to connect housed and homeless people, collecting donations from individuals, community and faith groups and businesses and giving these groups a stake in the homelessness crisis on their doorstep. By sharing this work on social media and with local press, we can make a positive and highly visible statement about the reality of the sharp end of the housing crisis. For local Labour parties to knock on doors for food, not for votes, sends a powerful message about who we are and what we are for. It is not enough. It is, as Sam Stopp put it, “a plaster over a bullet wound”. But it is better than the impotence of inaction.
These are not easy times to be a socialist. The polls. Brexit. Trump. The conflict and unease in our own party. But there is something constructive we can do that we all agree on: getting food, water, warm clothing and sanitary products to homeless people who need them, and treating people with dignity, respect and friendship in the process.
 DCLG (2015) Public attitudes to house building: Findings from the 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/412347/British_Social_Attitudes_Survey_2014_report.pdf
 Ipsos MORI Issues Index, 2007 to 2016
 Croydon Guardian, 23 March 2016, “Croydon families left in temporary housing for more than a decade as crisis deepens”