Melanie Onn: “Everybody has frailties. We need a little bit more humanity and empathy”
Melanie Onn has lived experience of being homeless from when she was in her late teens. Now a shadow minister for Housing, the Great Grimsby MP is determined to change perceptions of those without a place to call their own. She speaks to Sebastian Whale
Show a journalist a glimmer of colour and they will latch onto it like a feeding shark. Backstories that were previously unknown will become ubiquitous; sons of bus drivers, former soldiers, left-wing shadow chancellors who own a boat called the Morning Star. These insights will come up time and again because, well, we hacks love a good tale.
This fate has unfortunately befallen Melanie Onn, the Shadow Housing Minister who at the age of 17 became homeless after falling out with her aunt with whom she had been living. “Yes, I am bored,” the typically humorous MP replies when I ask if she’s growing weary of talking about the experience.
But talk about it we do as homelessness and rough sleeping falls under Onn’s jurisdiction in the Shadow Housing team, which she has been a part of since July 2017. The Great Grimsby MP, who grew up in the constituency, turned to local charity Doorstep for help while still studying at college. How does she think she would have fared today? “It would have been a lot harder,” she replies, citing access to benefit entitlements and support.
“In terms of the charity that helped me, they’re still going in Grimsby which is really good and really reassuring. They say it’s harder for them to find properties, to find landlords who are prepared to give up their properties for younger people. There is a reputational stigma attached to it when it’s young people who find themselves in difficulty.”
Was that stigma something she experienced? “I felt different from my friends. There were two sides to it; one, I felt very independent and it made me feel more grown up. At the same time, all of my friends were still at home and I suppose I felt a bit like I was missing out on that family life and the security that you had,” she replies.
“It’s probably shaped me ever since then because then I’ve always been on my own. I’ve always had to work. So, the fear of not working is huge. That’s always stuck with me. Making sure I’ve got enough money to pay my rent, to make sure I’ve got somewhere to live and I’ve got somewhere to work are the big drivers.”
Onn, who joined parliament in 2015 after ten years working for Labour HQ and a stint at Unison, says the experience has shaped her life choices more than it has informed her politics. “I was probably always a bit gobby about something before I was in that situation,” she says, before correcting herself. “Always had a view, is how it’s politely termed.”
It is undoubtedly a rare insight to have as a politician in her position, however. But Onn says there are more and more people she comes across – such as Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees and Birmingham councillor Sharon Thomson – with similar experiences. “It’s not entirely outside of people’s frame of reference who are now finding themselves in positions of responsibility. It’s quite refreshing, I suppose,” she reflects.
I’m sitting with Onn in her parliamentary office in Portcullis House which, it transpires, used to be a photocopier room. Not far away, in the underpass between parliament and Westminster tube station, Gyula Remes, a 43-year-old homeless man, died in December. He was the second person to have passed away recently just yards from an entrance to the Palace of Westminster. Rough sleeping in the borough, it emerged last month, has jumped by 41% in the past year. “We don’t talk about it enough. Securing debates here is challenging,” Onn says of raising the issue of homelessness. “Just before Christmas, as a result of Gyula Remes’ death, that did trigger the opportunity to ask the minister and press the minister on what was being done.
“It tends to be something that you talk about over the winter months. It would be great if it didn’t just get side-lined and shelved until Christmas when everybody starts to feel a bit more concerned about it.”
The number of people in England sleeping rough fell by 74 last year to 4,677. There were rises recorded in London, the north-east, Yorkshire and the Humber and the Midlands, while a large drop was found in Brighton and Hove from 178 in 2017 to 64. Since 2010, rough sleeping has increased by 165%.
The government has pledged £100m over two years to tackle rough sleeping and is trialling pilots based on the Housing First principle – that idea that housing should be given first and support provided alongside it – in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands.
James Brokenshire had initially disputed linking Conservative policies to the rise in rough sleeping, telling the Guardian in December that factors including psychoactive drugs and family breakdowns had been key. The Housing Secretary later said the Tories “need to ask ourselves some very hard questions” about why so many are living on the streets, and conceded that “changes to policy” were needed.
“For me, it’s not really good enough, is it?” responds Onn. “To say, ‘yes, we know we’ve been doing something wrong’ and then continuing to go along with it. There are no fundamental changes that are taking places that are going to ease this situation.”
She adds: “If you take £1bn out of the public sector then this is what happens. So, I feel like now they’re racing to catch up with themselves to address the errors and the mistakes that are purely of their own making.”
For Onn, the rise in homelessness comes down to the government’s pursuit of austerity and a lack of affordable housing. She notes the impact that Universal credit is having on claimants. “You’re increasingly getting into more debt, people are unable to manage the debt because their incomes are not enough to have anything spare to start to pay it back, not paying their rent because they’ve got other things that they need to pay first, whatever that might be. It’s a real difficulty,” she argues. All this “in the name of dealing with scroungers”, she adds.
If that is the case, does Onn think the Tories will suffer the electoral consequences? “It is becoming an increasing issue. As it becomes more prevalent across the whole country, as more and more people are needlessly dying, if they are exposed to the elements or they haven’t had support for their drug or alcohol abuse or they haven’t been able to access mental health support, as a society people will start to question more and more what is going on. It is a sign that things are broken, it is a sign that things aren’t working,” she replies.
Onn argues the challenge for Labour is to link the rise in homelessness to government policies and capitalising on Brokenshire’s “partial” admission, as she refers to it. “One of the things that really strikes me, if everything went horribly wrong – if a relationship broke down and the flat that you’re renting is going to be sold – how secure are you? How much money have you got set aside to be able to set up a new life afresh? For most people, if they’ve got a month’s salary in the bank, they’re doing pretty well,” she continues.
“I don’t have that… I probably should now I’m saying it out loud,” she says laughing. “… Lots of people don’t have that and they don’t have that security. The government making it harder for them, to me would be enough to say, ‘I don’t want to continue to support that’.”
It is an emotive subject, however. Onn is cautious about making the connection between the 597 rough sleepers in England and Wales who died in 2017 and government policy, but does see a link between rises in homelessness and rough sleeping. “The very fact of the visibility of it and the knock-on effect that it has in people’s communities, it is absolutely right to make that link to government policy and absolutely right to lay the charge at their door, because it didn’t have to be like that. It was a very determined decision that that’s what they were going to do, even though they were told that this sort of thing would happen,” she argues.
Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to purchase 8,000 houses to give immediate housing to rough sleepers. Onn has also been keen to highlight other forms of homelessness. According to Shelter, the homelessness charity, 130,000 children are living in temporary accommodation such as bed and breakfasts, hostels or hotels. Overall, the charity believes more than 320,000 people in Britain are homeless.
Onn says Labour would focus on building more social housing in communities where they are needed and has “real concerns” over the quality of accommodation families find themselves in currently. To meet the demand, the minister reveals she has had conversations regarding the erecting of modular homes – prefabricated houses that can be constructed quickly away from the building site. “I heard some interesting new ideas about container flats and using those for temporary and emergency accommodation,” she says, adding: “Ultimately, they want somewhere permanent to live. So, it comes on to the building side as much as anything else.”
Labour has pledged to repeal the Vagrancy Act, the early 19th-century law that makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg. Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP, has a Private Members’ Bill seeking to do exactly that, and Onn says her party is keeping an eye on its progress through parliament.
“There is quite an unsympathetic view about homelessness. There is an element of suggesting that people are not doing everything that they could to sort their lives out or things are through their own choices and therefore their own fault. Therefore, it just tries to ignore human fallibility,” concludes Onn.
“Everybody has frailties. We need a little bit more humanity and empathy when it comes to considering people’s circumstances.
“When you just see people, they are on the streets, it’s really easy to just walk past and just think ‘that’s a terrible thing’ or ‘they’re in the way’ or ‘they’ve caused a mess’ or ‘why are they shouting at me to give them money’, whatever it is. But to spend any time and talk to people and humanise the issue actually creates a big change in people’s mindset.
“Lots of people say ‘why am I talking about these people, they’ve got themselves into that situation’. I say back to them have you ever gone to our local shelter? Have you ever done any outreach work? Have you ever done the soup kitchen on the weekends? Have you ever done any of these things to make a connection with these people and find out a bit more about them and not just see them as somebody in a shop doorway or at the end of the tube stairs or whatever it is?
“Usually, no. Possibly, because you’re being confronted with something you don’t understand and doesn’t feel very comfortable.”