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We can prevent the deluge of homelessness and unemployment that threatens to engulf us

The Trafalgar Square Refreshment Hub distribute food to homeless people in the midst of lockdown. | PA Images

4 min read

Thousands of families are at risk of losing their homes due to Covid. We must act now to prevent this.

I am frightened of homelessness. It is the great undoer. And I don’t want any one of us to pass through that particular crisis.

I am known in the UK for my work with homeless people, and the fact I was a rough sleeper and homeless in my childhood and early adulthood. I started The Big Issue 29 years ago to help those that were already homeless. Yet now all I have ever done pales into insignificance before the threat of thousands upon thousands losing their homes because the breadwinners have lost their jobs.

Many members of both Houses are as concerned as me that this could swell the ranks of those in poverty in one fell swoop. That Covid-19-created poverty will be deep and destructive if we don’t unite as a society, as a Parliament, as a people. 

Once people slip into the treacle of homelessness you can kiss goodbye to education, social opportunity, and wider concerns about the environment, and the problems thrown up by racism and inequality.

Paying people's mortgage and rent is cheaper than allowing children and their parents to descend into homelessness

The cut, cut, cut philosophy of austerity from 2010 onwards has to be thrown out the door for three reasons: it was too destructive of communities, it was too expensive, and it failed to achieve its goal of reducing government spending, saving little more than 2%.

We have to embrace the actual cost-saving opportunities presented by keeping people in work and in their homes. Paying people's mortgage and rent is cheaper than allowing children and their parents to descend into homelessness, which is incredibly wasteful and expensive.

We, of course, have to do the sums. But the knock-on effect of people slipping into homelessness hits education, social services and the NHS. And it removes the chance of current and future generations getting anywhere near the prosperity that their forefathers enjoyed.

We are turning The Big Issue into a ‘clearing house’ magazine that will report on all attempts at bringing work and home support to the fore. It will campaign for government, business, community and local authority unity in the face of this threat to wellbeing.

We are also putting together an alliance called the ‘Ride Out Recession Alliance' (RORA). This will bring together all of the players who wish to use this moment to unite behind keeping people in work and home. We must not break that indivisible link between a person’s wellbeing and their home.

Our demands are straight-forward and uncomplicated:

•  No evictions for a period of up to two years. This will be achieved by paying or guaranteeing people's rent or mortgage.

•  The Government has to become an investor in businesses to keep people in work.

•  The Government has to lead the fight, alongside the community, to create jobs around the health industry, local care, education, the environment, and the full use of new technology to create new jobs.

I know the Government moved fast in getting people off the streets at the start of the lockdown. I know that Boris Johnson professes 'no return to austerity', and that has announced increased spending on all manner of 'shovel ready projects' and the launch of Project Speed, to be followed by Rishi Sunak's 'summer statement' of further spending initiatives.

We need to support these measures but we need to ensure they are sufficient to prevent the impending evictions and the recently-predicted one million increase in unemployment, taking the figure beyond even the nightmare levels of 1984.

In March, I wrote an article for this magazine about my Future Generations Bill, how it would focus policymaking on the interests of generations yet to come. But right now the wellbeing of our communities is under threat.

Present and future cannot be unlinked: the 'now' requires emergency action, but we need that clear vision of how we become the good ancestors our descendants should expect.

I'm calling for parliamentarians in both houses to join RORA, and to share their suggestions as to how, together, we can prevent the deluge of homelessness and unemployment that threatens to engulf us in the coming months. 

It can be done. But it's down to us.


Lord Bird is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords. 

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