Igraine Gray is a Conservative activist and former candidate, writer and former rough sleeper.
Eradicating homelessness is fundamentally a conservative mission. So why are we so determined to be dominated by our opponents over it?
Following on from somewhat clumsy comments from Suella Braverman, I yet again found myself asking this very question. As a conservative, whose history includes a nine-year on-and-off stint as a rough sleeper, there are occasions when I feel like an alien in my own tribe.
The frustrating part? It is entirely unnecessary.
Ending homelessness permanently is firmly rooted in conservative values. In family, community, duty, responsibility and self-determination. That someone like me would be a conservative should not be shocking. The fact that it is frequently surprising means we are not leading debate and action but, in fact, being led by it.
The problem with that? We are being defined by our political opponents.
Their language permeates through discussions and defines the terms of debate, where anything other than state intervention is demonised as not sufficient. We’ve allowed the idea that we do not care to breed in the vacuum where the conservative solution should be.
It leads to really good work such as the Rough Sleeping Strategy, and the efforts around veteran homelessness being forgotten in the blink of an eye. We needed to be robust. We weren’t. We gave them the space and opportunity to do that.
Language matters, especially around an emotive and complex subject such as homelessness is. There is little forgiveness for imprecision, especially within the policy environment we have created by not articulating our own vision well enough. That is why clumsy comments are so damaging.
Aggressive begging, stealing, drugtaking, littering and other anti-social behaviour – the issues the Home Secretary has stated she wants to tackle – are already illegal. We simply need to enforce the law. By bringing tents into the discussion, there is then an incorrect conflation between rough sleeping and criminality that does nothing to solve either the crime blighting our streets or the ending of homelessness.
The only thing it achieves is perpetuating harmful stereotypes and allowing criminals, who trivialise homelessness by adopting it as a costume to obscure their malevolence, to continue to harm vulnerable individuals.
These stereotypes also act as significant barriers to people experiencing homelessness and follow people who break out of it throughout their recovery journey – a fact I could not be more mindful of. Not only do they create an entirely unjustified sense of shame that prevents people from accessing support, they are an inaccurate portrayal of the overwhelming majority of affected people.
Public perception tends to grossly overestimate the number experiencing homelessness with substance abuse issues and criminal backgrounds, as well as underestimating the number of female and British-born rough sleepers.
Language matters. It is our moral – and yes, political – duty to be absolutely precise in what we say. Not doing so risks being part of the problem instead of the solution. It blocks meaningful discussion on an issue that should receive much more consensus across the political spectrum than it gets.
So, what should a conservative pitch for eradicating homelessness look like? Two-fold: stop it now and prevent it later.
Tailored, community-based support for rough sleepers transitioning into being housed is essential. The causes, effects, and frankly lasting trauma, of homelessness are extraordinarily complex. A rough sleeper’s unique factors will combine and react in a way that will be entirely different to any number of their peers.
The basic principle of any type of care is maintaining the dignity and agency of the person as much as possible. Rough sleeping is an extremely dehumanising experience in which many will feel a loss of control and humanity. It is of the utmost importance that any help gives that back to them, supporting them back into their community on their terms.
Homelessness is not merely a housing issue. However, it is a significant part of it – our housing crisis is exacerbating and extending homelessness beyond complex cases. We have a considerable supply-side deficiency, inflating house prices and rental offers.
We must build more houses. This is going to mean standing against entrenched nimbyism: showing the consequences of our failure to build, restoring targets, and reforming our planning system to support beautiful, infrastructure-laced developments.
There also cannot be a discussion of ending homelessness without highlighting the need to tackle family breakdown. In many cases, people fall into homelessness through the lack of a loving support system, a role most often played by family. Our systems and institutions centre the individual over the family, and we can reform these to support families better whilst protecting individual aspirations.
The fact is a wholly conservative pitch to end homelessness for good and prevent it will mean support that rebalances the relationships between the state, the individual, the family and the community. We must not be afraid to make it.
We have to stop ceding the narrative on homelessness to our political opponents because, with our values and the tools at our disposal, eradicating homelessness is fully within our gift.