Good people are outraged by the homelessness crisis. Change will come
Birmingham MP Liam Byrne has spent time on the frontline with those tackling the homelessness crisis and is challenging the government to do more to deal with this “moral emergency”
I thought he was about to die. It was just after ten on a freezing cold morning, and I was out with the Community Street Kitchen team in Birmingham city centre. There, in an underpass that stank of urine, we found a disabled gentleman – ashen grey, crying in pain, next to his wheelchair. Still dressed in his hospital gown, with a hospital tag on his wrist, he’d been there for three days. It took us two hours to get him an ambulance.
This isn’t some tale of the bad old days. It was last Sunday, in the second city of the fifth richest country on the planet. That’s why I’ve said to the prime minister that the homelessness crisis today is a moral emergency.
Since I lost my father to a lifelong struggle with alcohol in 2015, I’ve been doing whatever I can to shine a light on the way twists of fate can now knock someone from a decent life on to the pavement. I couldn’t save my dad from drinking but at least I could make sure there was a loving family to be on hand when crisis struck. Thousands don’t have that luxury. And today they’re forced to bed down on the streets where, in the West Midlands, they die at the rate of one a week.
In the West Midlands, rough sleeping has now spiralled by 333% since 2010 – with a ninefold rise in Birmingham, and a sixfold rise in Sandwell.
Just as bad are the “hidden homeless” – the families living in temporary accommodation around the region. Last summer I was dealing with horror stories of kids taking their GCSEs from Travelodges. In our area, the number of homeless children across the currently in temporary accommodation has increased by 175% (a factor of 2.75) since the start of 2013, with one local authority (Coventry) showing an increase of 663%.
Children now make up over one quarter (27%) of those in temporary accommodation across the West Midlands, and 5,000 children spent last Christmas in temporary accommodation.
What’s clear from my research interviewing Birmingham’s homeless community, helping to undertake the annual homeless count and working in soup kitchens every Sunday, is that the safety nets that once stopped people becoming homeless have collapsed.
In my region, the mental health caseload is rising four times faster than funding. Money for addiction services in Birmingham has been slashed by 19%. A quarter of the region’s residents live in authorities, including central Birmingham, that are actually cutting mental health spending – despite a rise in caseload.
Some of the people I’ve interviewed have serious illnesses. “John” says he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that is triggered very easily. “Patrick” has just lost his disability benefits, and can’t read the instructions on his medication so isn’t taking them – he takes crack and heroin to “block out the bad thoughts”.
“Gaynor” is a woman in her 50s whom everyone calls ‘Mum’. She is bipolar, self-harms “to let things out” when things get too much, and is addicted to alcohol. She showed me her wrists, scarred with cuts.
These are our neighbours. They are in need. But they are sleeping on the pavements. One man I spoke to couldn’t stop to chat. He was rushing a friend to hospital. He was also homeless and had been bitten by rats while he slept. They feared sepsis.
A wise community activist once told me: “It’s always cheaper to build a fence at the top of a cliff than park an ambulance at the bottom.” Well today the fence is smashed to pieces. We need to rebuild it, and that’s before we get on to the business of building enough genuinely affordable homes and regulating rogue landlords.
Change will come. Good people are outraged by what they see. In Birmingham, scores marched to protest about the death of young Kane Walker on our streets a few weeks ago. In my constituency, I’m now helping bring together our council, homeless charities, MPs, NHS and housing associations.
Experience tells me the speed and scale of this government’s response will never rise to the task at hand. So, we will have to rebuild a measure of decency for homeless people ourselves.
Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham, Hodge Hill