“Same old, same old as far as I’m concerned,” said 46-year-old Shamen Hazzard, a rough sleeper in Oxford, dismissing the prospect of voting in this year’s general election.
It’s a sentiment expressed by many voters as the UK holds its third general election in five years, following trips to the polls in 2015 and 2017. For some, this year is a chance to have their say on Brexit – for others it’s the climate election, and for some it’s about austerity.
Yet there is one group of people routinely ignored by voters and politicians alike – rough sleepers. In Oxford, where homelessness is an increasingly visible issue, the city council’s November 2018 estimate suggested there were 94 people sleeping on the streets.
The homeless community has also been rocked by at least six deaths of homeless people in the last year, with five people dying in a three-month interval between December 2018 and February 2019, which prompted the council to ask for an independent investigation into their deaths. Rough sleepers are varied in their levels of political engagement, but there is a universal feeling that not enough is being done.
Hazzard, who has lived in Oxford most of her life, spends most of her time outside Sainsbury’s, trying to make enough money to get into a hostel for the night. She says she will not be voting this year, and that she never has. “Just because I don’t get it, you know. [I] don’t understand the ins and outs of the politics and after every election, it seems like everything they say they’re going to do, don’t happen [sic]. So there’s no point.”
All the major political parties have responded to the housing and homelessness crisis, with the Conservatives pledging to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament,” expanding initiatives such as Housing First.
Meanwhile, Labour also plans to “end rough sleeping within five years,” by making 8,000 additional homes available. The Liberal Democrats have the same target, and plan to also scrap the Vagrancy Act, an 1824 piece of legislation often used to criminalise rough sleepers.
However, Hazzard believes political parties don’t really care about homeless people.
“It’s all clouds in the sky,” she said of targets set to end rough sleeping. “They’re closing homeless places down and that, and taking funding away from sport and all that, so what do they expect to happen? It just gets worse.”
In a statement this year, the Council said: “Overarching national issues like welfare reform, precarious private renting and austerity-driven cuts to mental health and social care support services drive the shocking rise in street homelessness. In Oxfordshire these cuts include more than £2 million a year in countywide housing support for single people experiencing homelessness.”
Volunteer at the homelessness collective Oxford Open House, Lucy Warin, told Cherwell: “It’s dire. For me this year has been the first year where I’ve become one of those hundreds of thousands of people working in a job where I watch people die because of austerity. And it’s been very difficult. But on the flipside, I think that this election has seen all of the political parties talk about homelessness and its relationship to the housing crisis in a way that I’ve not seen before.”
Warin led a drive to ensure homeless people had the chance to vote in the election if they wanted to, going into homelessness services and helping people fill in the form they must complete if they have no fixed address. On polling day, she helped people get to the booths, especially those with mobility or health issues.
“There’s definitely a lot of people feeling disenfranchised,” she added. “We’ve seen lots of people who just feel pretty hopeless. I’ve not seen any of the political parties actually reach out and try to talk to people on the streets. I think Labour have got some great policies around housing and helping people on the streets.”
Although political opinions are divided among homeless people as in any other demographic, she said there was unanimous dislike of the Conservative Party, who many hold responsible for the rise in street homelessness, especially due to the roll-out of Universal Credit from 2016 onwards as a replacement to the old benefits system.
Warin said: “Everyone hates the Tories. A big factor is universal credit. Universal credit is widely hated and is quite often one of a number of factors in a situation where someone’s become homeless, so people really hate the Tories for that. There’s quite a spread, so I’d say most people are either Brexit Party or Labour.”
She added that the drive was not aimed at raising support for any of the parties, but rather making sure that those who wanted to vote had the means to do so. “We’re not explicitly partisan. We’re definitely explicitly anti-Tory as anyone with a brain working in housing and homelessness would be. These are people who’ve got much bigger things [than politics] going on in their lives. So, what we’re trying to do is make sure nobody doesn’t vote because they’re having an awful time with their housing.”
Warin is not alone in her mission to get homeless people on the electoral register – Paul Roberts, CEO of Aspire Oxford, a charity working to help homeless and disadvantaged people find employment, is also encouraging homeless voters. “We are hosting our ward’s ballot boxes in our premises and as an organisation we are encouraging all our project participants to vote,” he said.
Hazzard was not convinced by the voting registration drive: “They do try and get us to vote and that, I just don’t want to. Some people came when I was down the day services at the night shelter and tried to get me registered to vote, and I didn’t do it.”
However, the push for increased political engagement has resulted in some homeless people signing up to vote. 42-year-old Kevin Barber, who has been sleeping rough for seven months after losing his home when his parents died and splitting up with his partner. He said he’d voted for the Liberal Democrats, with Brexit being one of the key issues on his mind. Despite his housing situation, he says homelessness was not a defining factor in his decision.
“There are too many homeless people on the streets. It’s gone too far for building extra houses for homeless people because there’s thousands of us. It’s going to be a no-win situation as far as I’m concerned, anyway,” said Barber.
He added that he felt politicians were unaware of homeless people and thinks the reason homelessness is increasing is because of higher-level politics. As for the solution, it’s “building more hostels, really, and affordable rooms to rent. And it’s hard, it’s really hard.” He insisted he’s tried to get help, saying it has only resulted in “a dead end every time.”
Unlike Hazzard, he believes it’s important to vote and that homeless people be made aware that they can vote although “if they do or not is a different matter. They’re probably lost, or they haven’t bothered voting, it just goes straight over their heads.”
Warin agreed, saying: “I think what I’ve personally found is these people are so rarely asked for their opinion. They live in a world of service, delivery and playing the system, and for us to turn around and say, ‘What’s your opinion?’ is just something that happens so rarely. I’ve had some really wonderful chats this election, some particularly eye-opening conversations.
“I think the one thing I just really hope for… I’ve been doing loads of canvassing, and one thing I come across is indecision. And what I’ve been saying is if you don’t know who you want to vote for, think of the most vulnerable people, who probably won’t vote, and vote for what’s best for them.”
Statistics show that homelessness has increased by 165 percent since the Conservative government came into power in 2010, according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The figures, dated from January 2018, estimate that at least 4,677 people sleep rough on any one night in England.
Barber is unsurprised by these figures. “There’s hundreds here, in Oxford alone, let alone all over the country. It’s only going to get worse, as far as I can tell.” He believes rough sleeping would have increased under any political party, and this thought is echoed by Hazzard, who says it would have happened “even if one of the other parties were in power.
“Everything else gets seen to before homeless people.”