Homelessness in London – An Interview With Glenda Jackson, MP

Backdated from previous BA website

This story is reprinted courtesy of Spare Change News in Boston, MA.

Street News Service

Homelessness in London – An Interview With Glenda Jackson, MP
Holly Hand
February 26, 2003

LONDON, UK:” I’m meeting with Glenda Jackson, Member of Parliament, at her office to ask for her views on homelessness in London and her ideas on how to eradicate homelessness. Ms. Jackson, former actress and winner of two Academy Awards for Best Actress (‘Women in Love’ and ‘A Touch of Class’), was elected to the House of Commons in 1992. She has worked on homelessness issues for years and has been a member of the Mayor of London’s Advisory Cabinet on Homelessness since 2000.

HH: Ms. Jackson you’ve been a member of the Labour party for many years and a Member of Parliament for 10 years. You were also Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport until you resigned that position to run for selection as the Labour party candidate for Mayor of London in 2000. I was very interested to read your campaign homepage where you set out what appeared to be an excellent strategy for combating homelessness in London, by getting an umbrella of services together. This looks like it could be an excellent blueprint for action in American cities as well because we have the same problems. Could you tell me more about your philosophy of how to combat homelessness?

GJ: Well, we saw the first explosion of serious homelessness – mostly on the streets of London – probably in the mid ‘80s. That was as a direct result of political decisions, such as the closing of long-stay mental hospitals without setting up truly sufficient support systems for something that was called Care in the Community. The closing of what we call doss houses in Central London. They were where people who where homeless, almost invariably men, could go. They would get a bed for the night, and the charges were usually quite minimal.

But we saw a big explosion in the mid ‘80s because young people were coming in to London from other parts of the United Kingdom looking for work because there was no work for them at home. Over two decades now the main change is that during that period a whole culture of life on the street has grown up. It’s almost invariably drug and alcohol based. I’m talking now about rough sleeping, which is another issue to homelessness, also with increasing numbers of young people. So there was an absolute mushrooming of usually voluntary sector organizations that began to try and assist rough sleepers. In the main it was simple things – soup runs, day centers opened usually led by the churches and voluntary organizations, and varied attempts by central government to tackle the problem.

Where we are now is that central government’s most recent initiative was looking at creating that kind of umbrella of services. They set up what they called the CAT teams, which are contact teams. They tended to be individuals who worked within that sector (usually for a voluntary organization), and the teams were set up, funded by central government, with the specific proviso that they were to target the most vulnerable on the streets of London and other major cities. They were taken off the streets – I mean only with their own agreement to that, there is no forced removal from the streets – in the first instance to a shelter, a hostel, and beds were kept specifically {for that purpose}. And the idea then was that there would be a caseworker for these individuals who would assist them through whatever else it may be that they needed.

We have about 3,000 organizations in London working in the field of rough sleeping and it inevitably slips into the broader area of homelessness. Some of these organizations are very small; some provide services, others are more campaigning, either to change the law or to get more money in the sector, or things of that nature. On average in any given week there may be about 1,400 people {rough sleeping} in London. The government set out to reduce the number of people rough sleeping in the streets of our cities by two-thirds this year. They claim that they have done that; there will be seasonal changes, there always are in the summer, the figures will bump up. There’s some argument as to whether the figures are accurate.

But the overall approach to the problem of rough sleeping I think is the right one inasmuch as you have to engage all the agencies. It’s not just for the housing department or social services; you have to engage the health departments. You have to begin to look at how you can help people either train if they have no training or retrain to get some kind of qualification. And when they do eventually get into some form of permanent housing they still have to be assisted. They still have to be helped to pay the rent and do the kinds of things that those of us who are fortunate enough to have a home take pretty much for granted.

HH: I was under the impression that rough sleeping is the same as homelessness, but not necessarily?

GJ: No it isn’t. Rough sleeping is where you are sleeping on the streets, but homelessness certainly within the context that we’re speaking of in London can for example be someone who does not come under the statutory requirements for a local authority to house. They may be sleeping on a friend’s floor, they may be moving from relatives, they may be squatting, there’s a whole range. It has been estimated that in London hidden homelessness is between 106,000 and 160,000 people. They’ve got a roof over their heads but often the circumstances are appalling.

HH: That’s an interesting distinction because we categorize rough sleeping and homelessness in general as homelessness.

GJ: We don’t because local authorities have a responsibility for housing. We’ve lost a great deal of what we used to call council housing (we now call it affordable social housing), because the Conservative government introduced the right to buy where local authority tenants who had lived for a certain length of time in their properties had the right to buy it. They could buy it at less than market value because their years of rent were taken into consideration. And so we have lost in London alone I think a quarter of socially affordable housing.

Also for about 20 years local authorities were not allowed to use that money to build new properties or repair their existing properties. That has changed with the change of government. But we do have a serious housing shortage in London and the southeast. And of course rents are very, very high.

HH: Has this umbrella approach cost more money or has it been the ability to amalgamate the services that you’re already spending money on for the most part?

GJ: It’s a little of both. Certainly as far as the amalgamation of services is concerned, one of the things I’ve found to be particularly surprising when the Mayor appointed me to his Cabinet in this category is that when you talk to people who are dealing day in and day out with people who are coming into benefit office, is the number of people who didn’t know the changes that had come about in the benefits system even when they’re dealing with it day by day. The number of people who didn’t know that you could submit what we call a short form for housing benefits as opposed to a long form for housing benefits. Who didn’t know that there was the ability even without proof of identity to be able to obtain money on the benefit system for I think 30 days. All these kinds of things. So there was a great lack of truly shared up to the minute information and a lot of kind of fantasies out there about what people could or could not get.

But the main shift I think, which is now pretty much acknowledged by everybody who works in this field, is that you have to have coordinated services.

The biggest problem I would say over and above not having somewhere permanent to live, for many of the people who are either rough sleeping or who are homeless in the sense that I’ve just defined it for you, is that if they for example are mentally ill and they reach a crisis point, if they’re not in the borough where they were living or they claimed to have lived, the borough that they’re in won’t treat them. So the integration of National Health Service provision across the whole of London as opposed to just some of the central London boroughs is something that has to be integrated rather more. It’s often very difficult for rough sleepers and homeless people to even get onto a GP’s list. That’s why we are seeing – I wouldn’t claim that its rolling out at the rate of knots – but where we do now have almost exclusively in central London {and} there are a couple further out toward the East End, where you will have the kind of walk-in health center, so that you can just walk in and there will be everything there under that roof. There are some day centers for instance where you can just walk in and there will be everything that you as a homeless person or rough sleeper would need to help you, not only medical care but dentists, podiatrists, benefits offices, housing offices, things like that. So the idea is trying to create a one-stop shop place for people because the real thrust now has to be in preventing homelessness in the first instance.

HH: Do you have a specific program that you’re working on now to prevent homelessness?

GJ: Yes. Every local authority now by virtue of an Act, which we passed, I think it must have been earlier this year, has to devise a strategy for the prevention of homelessness. This is based on all the arms of a local authority and the arms- length agencies working together. I’ve already run through what they are. They also now have a responsibility as well to house young people leaving care, women fleeing domestic violence and offenders coming out of prison. And again, they won’t be put into permanent accommodation by any means but they will get a roof over their head, hopefully. But there have to be strategies on the ground for the prevention of homelessness. One of the ways used to be for some local authorities that if people fell behind rent, it would be flagged up on the computer. Somebody would go ‘round and say, “Why are you having problems paying your rent?” Those kinds of simple things are the way that one has to attempt to help people who are becoming homeless because they don’t pay their rent or things of that nature.

One of the biggest areas of homelessness is with young people who are leaving home either because it’s overcrowded or because they don’t get on with their parents or stepparents. So one of the effective ways of tackling this is what we call foyers. They tend to be a partnership between local authorities, a voluntary organization, other services, where young people are housed in their own independent accommodation, but within the foyer there is an element of pastoral care and they have to live by certain rules. They are also assisted for example to go to college, to obtain training, taught simple things like how to cook basic meals as opposed to spending such limited resources they have in McDonalds – things of that nature.

But essentially we all have to be much, much quicker to pick up on potential dangers.

And the point of telling you about the surgeries is that I held one specifically for young people under the age of 25 in central London. Now this girl’s mother had died when she was 14. Her father had blamed her for her mother’s death and kicked her out. I think that for something like three years she’d simply gone from one set of relatives to another set of relatives. She hadn’t been to school. She eventually took up with this guy who put her in hospital. She then took up with another guy who put her in hospital. She’s now with what seems to be a nice young man and he’s going to live with his parents while she waits for the birth of her baby. But she was 14! She should have been picked up at 14! But she wasn’t, and you know it’s that fine line always where do you actually help people or where is it deemed to be an intrusion on civil liberties. I mean when they’re as young as 14 I don’t think there’s an argument.

HH: People in the United States have a phrase when it comes to trying to house homeless people: “Not in my back yard”, or NIMBY. And the problem with that of course is that a lot of people don’t seem to realize that their back yard stops at the property line – it’s not their whole community. Do you have to deal with that here?

GJ: We don’t have it quite in that way. Where it would be most obvious – I can give you a prime example – there’s an organization called St. Mungo’s – they deal with rough sleeping and homelessness but their specialty really is the most difficult people. The most difficult because they are alcoholically dependent, and they may be elderly, they may be violent. When St. Mungo’s opens a hostel, it affords an element of pastoral care, where there’s always someone to keep an eye out for people. When it was proposed that they would open such a hostel in my constituency for example, there was a great deal of protest from the residents. They didn’t want what they saw as dangerous, alcoholic old men in the street. You can have exactly the same if you want to open a home for people who are mentally unstable – and these are things that you just have to fight through. You obviously have to have the support of the local authority, you have to be able to answer people’s questions. You have to have public meetings. And very often that can work well because people’s fears can be stilled and very often they become supporters of the hostel and helpful in that way.

And again within my constituency there is what we call sheltered housing where elderly people or infirm people for example can live. They have their own apartment, quite often they will be a bedsit or a studio flat, but where there’s always someone on hand in case anything goes wrong. Now one of the organizations that was managing one of the largest sheltered homes in my constituency are going to have to – over the coming years due to legislation – move from the kind of studio bedsit accommodation into one bedroom properties to improve health and safety and things like that. And they were finding that they had empty properties. So they then, working with other charities and again with the local authority, began to let these properties, in order to keep the overall rent levels for everybody at an affordable level, to individuals who were not necessarily pensioners, which is what it had always been for before. They may have had mental illnesses, personality disorders, people who we would lump under the heading “vulnerable.”

Now in the first instance this caused a great deal of disquiet amongst those people who were already living there. We have one instant of a man wandering the halls stark naked. But I’m happy to say that this has now been ameliorated –I don’t get letters about it anymore or have to go to meetings there anymore – because social services, other voluntary organizations became involved. The individuals who were put in there were actually assisted. I don’t mean someone was there every minute of the day, but they were helped to maintain themselves, to make sure they took their medicine, to make sure that they paid their rent and things of that nature. And that kind of maintenance and support is very essential in keeping people off the street or in their properties once you’ve got them off the street and you’ve found them somewhere permanent to live.

HH: You’re someone who has had two great careers, as an actress and now in politics, and both these careers are considered extremely difficult to be successful in. If a homeless person is reading this article and thinking, “I can’t do anything, I’m giving up,” what would you say to that person about keeping on and becoming successful?

GJ: I think if one’s looking in the area that we’re specifically looking at, when I’ve spoken to people who have been on the streets for a very long time, I’m thinking of a man I met who works now on behalf of other rough sleepers and homeless people. And he was very honest, he said there was no further down he could go and he’s very up front about being a recovering alcoholic. He said he was always violent in drink; he consistently bit that hand that was trying to help him as he said. He went so far down, and he said, “I knew that if I didn’t do something I would be dead.” And he clearly didn’t want to die and so he’s turned his life around. I think what people have to know is that it’s a long process, it doesn’t happen overnight – you make take one step forward and one step back. But I don’t think that anyone should ever think that there is not someone there to help you because there are people there to help you and you just have to keep working at it. Because it is amazing how life can change – you can go from being up to being down and you can go from being down to being up. But you just have to keep trying.

*This story is reprinted courtesy of Spare Change News in Boston, MA.

see http://www.alternet.org/sns/storyPrint.html?StoryID=15257

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s