Meet the campaigners urging homeless people to register to vote for 12 December
“Quite frankly, a lot of the rough sleepers we’ve been speaking to, they’re some of the most political people out there,” says Tom, co-founder of the Labour Homelessness Campaign.
“They know exactly what the structures of society has been doing to them and they’re keen to change that because no-one's ever talked to them.”
Since the general election was called, last month, the Labour Homelessness Campaign has been out in key marginal seats encouraging rough sleepers to register to vote.
According to the Cabinet Office, only 2% of homeless people are on the electoral roll - with 48 councils in England not having a single rough sleeper signed up.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of them do not know how to register should they wish to.
Those without a fixed address can put down details of somewhere they spend a lot of time such as a day centre or night shelter, or even an address nearest to a park bench, bus shelter or high street shop front.
Speaking on the outreach work with the homeless in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency, Tom - who did not want to give his surname - said: “50% of people are just completely fed up with politics, but the other 50% say ‘I didn’t realise I could register to vote, absolutely I want change’.
“This is an area where Mark Field [former MP] was in the news a few months ago for saying local homeless charities attracted ‘undesirables’.
“It’s known by most of the rough sleepers around the area that they’ve never had elected politicians at the council or parliamentary level who represent them.”
This will be the first election since the Office for National Statistics began releasing the number of homeless people that die in England and Wales each year.
The number hit a record high 726 in 2018, which represents a 51% hike in five years.
According to Shelter, the number of homeless people, including rough sleepers but also those living in temporary accommodation and hostels was at 320,000 by the end of last year.
“It’s not just ‘make your voice heard’’ because that’s the generic frame...but to be able to exercise their power, and actually change their situation through collective action so everyone collectively being able to vote for a change, that is an actual way we can put pressure on,” Tom says.
But despite the group's efforts, the number registered to vote remains low.
Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes told PoliticsHome: “There are no reliable statistics on the numbers of homeless people who are registered to vote, but we do know that – like the rest of us – people experiencing homelessness are anxious to have their voices heard and to cast their vote in this election.
“But for many people across the country, homelessness remains a huge barrier.”
Homeless Link was one charity funded by the Cabinet Office to run a ‘Your Vote Matters’ campaign back in 2015, where 3,000 rough sleepers took part in ‘democratic engagement activities’ and more than 1,600 registered to vote as a result.
Despite this, campaigners admit the numbers fell short of their target, although they did manage to increase awareness of how to register.
Tasmin Maitland, Homeless Link's assistant director of practice, said: “Our experience has shown that people facing crisis often have to prioritise their more immediate concerns around housing and other needs, which may explain the relatively low voter registration rates among those who are sleeping rough.
“These also depend on homelessness service staff having enough time to explain the process and help people to register, which is less likely when they are supporting more people in crisis.”
Charities also fear that the Government’s intention to bring in voter ID at elections will create further barriers for homeless people who are eager to vote.
Tom said: “It’s the first December election in a very long time and it should be a homeless election.
“I know people say a lot of other things about a climate change election and a Brexit election but it really has to be, people have to have that at the forefront of their mind and I think they will.
“That will have an impact on the results because people can just see the visual image of buildings sitting empty while people are literally freezing to death outside.”
He added: “On the voter registration side we don’t want this to stop at the general election, we don’t want to just be doing this to get Labour into government, we want to be doing this so they'll continue to be registered and continue to hold their elected officials to account.”