It’s 2012 somewhere in the south of Manchester. I am sitting in a squat that houses almost 20 people, and commiserating with a group of activists, students and homeless people. The crowd drinks cheap cans of cider and straight vodka, and the feeling is apocalyptic. It is by far the worst party I have been to in a long time.
The night marked the end of an era. After months of campaigning and organising, news had reached us that the Tory government, with the ever-loyal backing of the Lib Dems, would move to outlaw squatting. Overnight, Cameron’s government would criminalise hundreds of people whose lives relied on the rich vein of empty buildings that Thatcher’s government had left strewn across the North. Under the coalition, some 24,000 homes in Manchester alone sat empty while people died on our streets.
At the time, I was made homeless. Far from just a shut-down of social spaces, the ban promised to criminalise those of us with nowhere else to go – punishing us for the simple crime of seeking shelter. Our way of living was under attack. The first to fall victim to these laws was a 21-year-old bricklayer’s apprentice who relied on squatting despite working full-time. He was sentenced to three months in prison.
A few weeks after the election, a friend of mine was kicked out of a bed and breakfast after trying to sneak in three other former squatters who couldn’t afford the single room on their own. Sometime after, I heard of a fight that had broken out between two dumpster divers who each claimed the other was muscling in on their territory. Almost every week we heard stories and rumours of people that were suffering and dying as our country shifted into the new normal.
After 10 years of austerity, things have become steadily worse for those affected by homelessness. But it isn’t just the obvious direct cuts, like the 9000 places in homelessness services which have disappeared since 2010. Tory cuts have made it so much harder for all of the most vulnerable in our society. Local authority budgets have dropped by a quarter across the country, and everything from mental health support to social housing is becoming increasingly rare for everyone.
Homelessness begins suddenly. A trigger leads to a spiral that can be difficult to pull out of. It might be a death, a bad landlord, or an abusive relationship. It could be a prison sentence or a period of hospitalisation. The reasons are countless, but their place in the story is often the same.
We can’t, unfortunately, prevent many of the triggers which lead people into homelessness – but we can stop that downward spiral before it becomes too damaging. Under the New Labour government, this form of approach led to a steady decline in the numbers of rough sleepers. Tony Blair channelled funding into the newly-established Social Exclusion Unit, a group that aimed to prevent the factors which lead to marginalisation and disenfranchisement. The relatively generous funding – combined with the experienced front-line workers rather than government bureaucrats at the helm – helped thousands not only break the spiral, but recover and rebuild from some of the worst forms of homelessness. Many believed that rough sleeping was on its way to being eradicated in our lifetimes.
The Social Exclusion Unit’s successor, which had merged with another department in 2006, was abolished in Cameron’s first year as Prime Minister. It marked a new approach under the Tories: while local authorities and government units were drained of their funding, the “Big Society” would fill in the gaps. We were all in this together.
However, since 2010 we have seen the highest levels of rough sleeping ever recorded in the UK. And it’s worth noting that an estimated 60 per cent of those affected by homelessness do not regularly sleep rough. These “hidden homeless” live in temporary accommodation, shelters and squats. It’s impossible to say exactly how many find themselves in these precarious situations, but it is broadly agreed that numbers have increased massively under Tory austerity.
The situation is so dire it has required the invention of a new language to describe it. The so-called “working homeless” (those in employment who still cannot afford a home) were mostly unimaginable before austerity created them. And when voters go to the polls this month, 135,000 children, unable to vote, will be sleeping in hostels, shelters and, in some cases, on the streets. In a just society they would not exist – and nor would the countless other examples of injustices which have been fuelled by the Tory’s systematic dismantling of the welfare state.
When Chancellor Sajid Javid earlier this month claimed that Labour were responsible for an increase in homelessness he was deliberately attempting to deceive the public, banking on the fact that they and the press would not look into the full facts. Make no mistake, the homelessness crisis is a political choice. Every death on our streets is a deliberate decision to abandon those in need. The Tories are aware of the effects their policies have, as anyone who has looked at the data would be.
Until the choice is made to put money back into the hands of those with the ability and the will to help, we will continue to see deaths and rising numbers of homelessness. Ending austerity will not end homelessness overnight – but it is clear that a future under another Tory government means more suffering for those that find themselves on that difficult downward spiral. To end homelessness for good, we need not just to replicate the successes of the past, but to build upon it towards a vision of the future where everyone finds the support they need.
Tom Balderstone is an activist and campaigner from Lancashire. He is a member of the Labour Homelessness Campaign and works in the charity sector. Follow him on Twitter.