Jo Swinson face-to-face on election trail with the homeless in Whitechapel
- Credit: Mike Brooke
Scrapping the Vagrancy Act which “criminalises those on the streets” can end the homeless crisis, Lib Dem national leader Jo Swinson promised when she came face-to-face in Whitechapel today with men and women who have been on the streets.
She was the first national party leader answering a challenge from the Crisis charity for a round-table meeting at its Skylight centre with those who demand action if she gets the keys to No 10.
They included 34-year-old asylum-seeker Sonia Brown who was barred from getting work when she came to Britain as a teenager and found herself homeless for five years, unable to earn a living and nowhere to turn to.
"I was quite suicidal and felt I had no future," she told the Lib Dem leader.
"I was really a mess—I couldn't move on with my life."
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The charity gave her shelter and made it possible to take up English classes.
Sonia, now a Crisis "ambassador", asked for a pledge to help those on the streets who are deemed not entitled to jobs or housing.
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Swinson told her: "Restrictions stopping asylum seekers working are ridiculous. People should be able to work after three months transition. The support period should be extended to make sure those in vulnerable groups get help in housing."
She used the meeting to call for scrapping the Vagrancy Act which "criminalised those finding themselves homeless."
It was an "outdated legislation" from 200 years ago she said was no longer fit for its purpose. Extended support for those on the streets or those facing potential homelessness was needed "to get people's lives back on track".
She told the meeting: "We have put forward a bill to scrap the Vagrancy Act. I am determined that we continue the fight to get rid of this outdated legislation after listening to your experiences."
The homeless crisis can be ended once and for all, the charity's chief executive Jon Sparkes told the Lib Dem leader. It would need committing to a major increase in social housing, a welfare system that covers rents and support for services that help people out of homelessness or prevents it in the first place.
He told the East London Advertiser: "This was a chance to hear from people experiencing homelessness and to understand the issues they're going through.
"There are policies that politicians can take to end homelessness now, like restoring the housing benefits link to market rents at the low end which was severed in 2011. That would cost £3 billion, but the benefits to the public purse would be nearly double by savings in temporary accommodation and other social services."
Restoring the link between housing benefits and rents would stop families becoming homeless and lift thousands of children out of poverty, he estimates.
It would also stop the rise in rough sleeping which Crisis estimates has increased in London by a quarter in the past 12 months alone.
"Rough sleepers are a human issue," the Crisis charity chief added. "Every single one is a loss of potential, held back because we're not stopping them becoming homeless."
The challenge in Whitechapel for party leaders to meet the homeless face-to-face is part of a general election alliance of organisations like Crisis, Centrepoint, Shelter, Homeless Link, De Paul and St Mungo's.
They call for £10bn investment over 10 years in addition to the funds needed to increase the housing supply.
But what is needed now to end the growing homeless crisis, they tell politicians from all parties, is guaranteed funding to help people get off the streets quickly with "somewhere safe to stay".
* Sonia Brown is not her real name.