TThe day I found out that I was going to be awarded an MBE started like most Mondays. I started work at 7.30am, in front of an inbox with 48 new emails. These included everything from the bureaucratic – a request for funding – to the troubling, several about a young man sleeping in a local park, for whom all attempts to offer support have so far failed. Among them was an email from the Cabinet Office, requesting my acceptance or rejection of an MBE. I laughed at first. It must be a hoax, I thought. But when I read it again, I realized that it was too official for that.
I forgot about email for a while. The young man who worried my colleagues and the request for funding took priority; And, as happens most days, it was 5 in the afternoon when I looked up from my laptop. When I finally reread it, I felt a wave of shame at first that quickly turned to frustration and finally settled into an all too familiar sadness. Once again, the powers that be had missed the point.
I have worked in homeless services for almost 18 years: in shelters, youth services, women’s projects and for local government and charities. I have celebrated with joy every time someone has found a stable home and I cry every time someone loses their life on the street. I never stopped caring intensely about what I do, I never stopped wanting to learn and do a better job, and I never stopped believing that people affected by homelessness deserve infinitely better than what I have been able to offer.
Official statistics show a panorama of inequality and exclusion: violent sleep has increased at least 52% since 2010, and premature deaths affecting those same people have increased by 61% since 2013. That these trends coincide with the onset of austerity and its impact on the working class and people with disabilities is no coincidence.
We also know that around 50% of people who are recently on the streets of London they are non-british citizens, and that until 24% of homeless youth are LGBTQ +. If you are vulnerable and marginalized in this country, the chances of you being homeless are greater. The fact that this inequality stems from the continuing legacy of the British Empire and its brutal impacts on black, brown and LGBTQ + people made accepting an MBE impossible. A potent example of this legacy is the Windrush scandal, which pushed people who have lived, worked, and raised families in my township for decades into poverty and homelessness in an instant.
Another example is the effect of our border regime on LGBTQ + people seeking asylum on the grounds of violent repression and abuse in the country where they were born. In the last year alone, we have supported numerous queer poor sleepers to avoid deportation and the certainty of violence in immigration detention centers. Homophobic and transphobic laws in their home countries were originally implemented under the British ruler, showing how the legacy of the empire is affirmed today. That trans people face some of the worst abuse and violence on our streets only adds insult to injury. As a queer person, how could you accept an award from the same institutions that fail to protect the LGBTQ + community from the violent and repressive laws that Britain has left scattered around the world?
The truth is, my job shouldn’t exist. Despite having worked more than 50 hours a week each week for nearly two decades, my efforts, and those of thousands of other dedicated practitioners and volunteers, have had almost no tangible positive effect on homelessness in this country. In the world I want to live in, housing is a right, not a privilege. I imagine some people reading this will say that I am an idealist, or that doing this would come at a cost that the British economy simply cannot afford.
But anyone who has been homeless during the Covid-19 pandemic will know that this is not the case. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has invested more than £ 105 million in providing accommodation and support to people affected by homelessness in the past 15 months. In my municipality alone, this vital funding and the contribution of our own limited resources have enabled us to provide accommodation, food and specialized support to more than 1,100 additional people since the start of the pandemic. Money is available to end homelessness if there is the political will to do so.
The good work they are celebrating me for has largely been in spite of the state, rather than in its service. It was humbling for me to know that my peers and colleagues wanted my work to be recognized nationally, but for me the honor is in my community. I feel incredibly fortunate to live and work in a municipality that has been one of the boldest and most expressive in our commitment to protecting those affected by homelessness and addressing the damage caused by current policy. All of the successes have been achieved thanks to strong relationships between grassroots organizations, charities and people with experience in homelessness.
The last 15 months have been some of the hardest that many of us have experienced, underscoring the effects of social injustice in this country, especially for those who have nowhere to live. But despite everything, we have also had the opportunity to see another path: homelessness can end for everyone; we can eliminate the arbitrary eligibility criteria that keep people on the streets for years; we can abolish the conditions of no recourse to public funds and we can guarantee fast, free and equitable access to health care for all. That would be the only honor I will need.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism