Homelessness in Manchester, September 2019. Photo: Stephen Conway vi Flickr Homelessness in Manchester, September 2019. Photo: Stephen Conway vi Flickr

The recent election result will mean misery for the most vulnerable, but people with experience living on the street are fighting to resist, reports Norbert Lawrie

Five years ago, two members of Counterfire decided to do more to help and support the growing numbers of homeless people cascading onto our streets as a direct result of austerity. 

Initially, we started an awareness campaign, we established and set-up a Facebook page in the Bell & Anchor pub in Camden which we were squatting at the time and called our page ‘Homeless Britain’ which is now the name of our activist group.

We are a small group which is deliberate as we find it to be more effective that way. Although we work alongside many other groups around the country with similar views and outlook to our own as we consider ourselves to be political housing/homeless activists, it was not our crystal clear intention at first to establish such a group it just developed organically that way and as soon as we got a real feel of the situation on the pavement then things just took off.

Today we run and organise two weekly street kitchens in Victoria and a food bank for struggling families in both Victoria and Pimlico on council estates. We provide food to OAP groups, youth clubs and even a school breakfast club. We have furnished flats and provided clothing where needed. This Christmas we provided food hampers and 16 turkeys to desperately struggling families.

Solidarity not charity 

During the course of the last 5 years, we have learnt many lessons as you do in struggles and we have built and brought together a band of volunteers drawn from two council estates in Victoria. We have won the support and approval of many residents but alas not Westminster city council who have tried on numerous occasions to make life difficult for us. Recently, they insisted that we obtain public liability insurance which is quite expensive but this did not stop us or our team and supporters who organised 3 street jumble sales and in the 3 consecutive weeks raised over £1,000 and the job was done.

In 2017 on World Homeless Day in York, we organised an outdoor political event, a rally to raise more public awareness around homelessness and to show the depth of feeling from local people at the continuing housing crisis. We made banners and distributed leaflets on the street by way of vendors who sell the Big Issue North we generated enough publicity to attract over 200 people on a cold October night including, to our amazement, a pack of Cub Scouts who turned up with parents and a homemade banner that read ‘No More Deaths On Our Streets’. Cub Scouts like that will have Baden-Powell turning in his grave. 

Universal Credit

We have found that universal credit sets up vulnerable people (claimants) for a fall as it puts too much temptation in the way to, say, pay off other debts or perhaps to spend some of the money on other essential items and that’s not to mention the DWP assessment and waiting time for the benefit delivery. Universal Credit, the so-called new welfare state, has been plagued by back-to-back problems since launching in the UK – led mostly by its controversial five-week wait for the first payment.

However, 2.7million people are already enrolled onto it – and more in counting as the roll-out continues.

Many people have told us just how difficult it is to survive and, from time to time, media coverage has highlighted the appalling stories of hardship endured by so many, which of course, sells newspapers.

Busting myths and breaking stereotypes

The vast majority of the homeless people I’ve met whilst on the street have been completely sober – alcohol consumption and drug use are uncommon among many people that I’ve got to know over the years. It is completely inaccurate to assume, as many do, that alcohol and drug addiction was an experience that most homeless people share. That said, I do not dispute the fact that alcohol and drug addiction is a major problem for many homeless people. 

The mainstream discussion about homelessness in Britain completely ignores certain aspects of why some people have been made homeless. When you work closely with homeless people as we do you begin to learn and listen to their stories and like us you will begin to realise that each and every single day one of us is at risk of being made homeless. 

Eradicating homelessness for good is therefore in our collective interest. You simply cannot guarantee that you yourself won’t become the next person to hit a hard pavement or a shop doorway.

General Election 

Another inspiring event for us was the election of a socialist as leader of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation as a principled socialist meant we had to give maximum support knowing that his path and for Labour into government would be tricky and that the establishment the media and the backstabbers in the PLP would be standing in his way. We weren’t wrong about that and neither was Counterfire under any illusion as to the enormity and magnitude of the task he faced and indeed we faced.

We just knew from the beginning that Jeremy would be good on homelessness and the commitment to end rough sleeping within 5 years was like music to our ears and because Jeremy is passionate and serious on this issue he would turn up sometimes with one of his sons and help out at a London street kitchen. 

We worked with comrades from the Labour Homelessness Campaign, a grassroots campaign of Labour members and homelessness activists standing in solidarity with those experiencing homelessness. 

We managed with others to get hundreds of homeless people to register to vote and I do believe we managed between us and other groups to get more homeless people to register than in any other general election. 

On the 12th of December we were out in the rain knocking on doors, in my case in York. We were working two parliamentary constituencies (inner and outer York) and we returned Rachael Maskell for the city but, unfortunately, in outer York Labour didn’t do as will. We were glad that Racheal made it back because she was encouraged by us in the last parliament to hold the government actively to account over the housing crisis which she did with distinction, tripping up Teresa May at Prime Minister’s question time.

Losing elections hurts there is no question about that as this Boris landslide will hurt the poor, the disabled, the homeless, the sick, migrants, working people and everyone who depends on decent public services.

The Tory victory was won under an avalanche of untruths and lies. Boris’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ simply means everything is on the table and we can expect more of our public assets to be put up at a Tory car boot sale which includes NHS and what is left of our social housing.

The future looks bleak and unless we organise and fight back Britain and working people will come to regret and pay a high price for the decision made on the 12 December 2019.

Austerity and cuts to services are driving a worsening homelessness crisis, as figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have shown that an estimated 726 homeless people died in England and Wales in 2018. This is a 22% rise from 2017 and the biggest increase since the data was first collected in 2013.

During the London Blitz, 32,000 civilians died. During 9 years of austerity 120,000 related deaths were recorded in the UK.

Every time Tory governments have been elected homelessness has increased. Ever since Margaret Thatcher won her first election the Tories have presided over an escalating housing crisis which was pushed back briefly under the administrations of, dare I say it, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

At least 135,000 children in Britain were homeless this Christmas and with such a start in life how many of these children (as they grow up) will join and replace those lost needlessly on our streets in the years to come?

We lost an election which was the best hope we had to address this crisis, a lost battle but not the war. It isn’t always easy to overcome obstacles, to have to choose struggle over and over again when life gets tough and even tougher – but it can be done and it can be rewarding. No matter how hard it might be, we will always come out on the other side just a little bit stronger and a little bit wiser and then we win!

That’s why life today is such a web of challenges, setbacks and then eventually triumphs. From every experience comes a valuable lesson, and the ability to find a light even in our darkest hour means we can overcome our worst day.

Moving forward 

In May grassroots organisations like our own are planning to come together in Sheffield to coordinate national action following on from the Boris Johnson election victory. 

This will be the first time that a grassroots movement made up of homeless and formerly homeless activists are able to come together and plan our response and be a part of the bigger picture. We will be considering direct action, extra-parliamentary action and forming a block to be part of the People’s Assembly, propositions that will be put forward by Homeless Britain. 

‘Spit on your own and you can’t do anything, but if you all spit together you can drown the bastards’ – Bob Crow

Norbert Lawrie

Norbert Lawrie is a former homeless advice worker and campaigner of many years standing. He has been an executive member of CHAR the former campaign for single homeless people, and has been instrumental in gaining council tenancies for hundreds of homeless people including children living in hostel accommodation. Norbert maintains an ongoing relationship with the London street homeless and the squatting movement.