It all started with an attractive bearded man with a clipboard on London’s Regent Street one cold, dark November afternoon about five years ago. I normally make my excuses when I’m approached by charity fund-raisers on the street, but unlike a lot of ‘chuggers’, he made a compelling case as to why I should give away my bank details there and then; among the heaving mass of shopping tourists. I hope he now works somewhere important in Shelter or another charity because my direct debit has been going out ever since. And quite unlike many other causes I’ve flirted with in the past, I have never wavered in my support.
Why Shelter? Even as we approach London’s golden year of 2012, homelessness is still a problem – and it seems like it’s getting worse. It’s clear that while the critical needs of developing countries will always deserve our support, there is a housing crisis right on our doorstep. During times of economic plenty, it seemed like the sort of problem that could be ignored and brushed under the carpet. Everyone had a roof over their head, didn’t they? Surely everyone was on the housing ladder was regularly checking the front page of the Daily Mail for the latest indication over which direction house prices might go in, like company share prices?
In fact, not everyone shared in the housing boom, and our national supply of affordable, habitable housing plummeted. Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme may have fulfilled the dreams of baby-boomer council tenants but – in spite of the needs of future generations, and to the shame of politicians of all parties – the public housing stock was allowed to dry up.
There may be better support networks for people on the streets than there ever were before, but the scale of homelessness in the UK still seems misunderstood. As Shelter itself says, you don’t have to be living on the street to be homeless. In the last year, it gave specialist advice on housing, debt and benefit problems to the best part of 100,000 people. It undoubtedly steers people to the help they need, when they need it most. The charity also does a lot to root out rogue landlords – those guilty of fire safety violations, illegal evictions or just dangerously cutting corners. It’s something I had plenty of experience in my early twenties, when I’d naively signed up to a tenancy in a house where the heating didn’t work, there was constant damp and the temperature in the living room in winter could often be as low as 9 degrees. I was also homeless for a week when our landlord’s financial misfortunes ensured a visit from a bailiff. I was lucky and had plenty of support and help but many people would be powerless without Shelter working on their behalf.
Decision-makers and policy makers need to be reminded that good quality housing is crucial to our happiness and assures our dignity as human beings. One person without a stable, safe roof over their heads is one too many; everyone needs a happy home.