Big Issue North responds to Suella Braverman’s remarks on homelessness

People experience homelessness for many reasons. Choice is not one of them

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On 4 November, Suella Braverman, the UK Home Secretary, posted on X, formerly Twitter: “The British people are compassionate. We will always support those who are genuinely homeless. But we cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice.”

Many of the people who sell The Big Issue have experience of homelessness due to many different reasons – but lifestyle choices do not feature among the numerous causes.

“I’m a joiner but during the recession, in 2008, I lost my job and I got made redundant,” said Doncaster vendor Rich.

“After that, I started to spiral. I started drinking and then doing drugs. I was worried I was messing my mum and dad’s heads up. I was trying my best to stop but it was hard because it was an addiction, so I left home, and I ended up being homeless after that.

“I started off in doorways for six months and it was really scary. I’d never been homeless before. But then me and another lad got a tent, and we went under a bridge in Doncaster. There were a few people in tents there – we all kept ourselves to ourselves.”

Others lost their homes due to relationship breakdown or loss.

“I left home at 13. I’ve looked after myself ever since,” said Sheffield vendor Paul. “My mum and dad had split up and my stepdad was abusive. I was on the street for five years then. It messed my head up. It’s taken me all these years to get where I am.

“I thought my life had changed when I met my first partner. I had four kids with her. But then everything went wrong, and we split up and I lost my home, I lost my job, I lost everything.”

This experience was echoed by participants in a survey conducted by Big Life Liverpool. “I was made homeless due to having a breakdown following my partner passing away,” said one service user.

“Due to the tenancy being in my partner’s name, the housing association refused to transfer the tenancy to me, even though children were living there, so we were evicted. I had to place my children with family members, but there was no room for me.

“I was sofa surfing, which then causes issues and friction, so I ended up sleeping around Bold Street. It took me over three years to get out of the cycle and system.”

In November 2021, Ashton-under-Lyne vendor Graham lost his home following a loss of earnings during Covid-19. “Not being able to sell the magazine because of the pandemic meant that I couldn’t afford to keep up with my rent,” he said.

“It went to court, and they gave me a date when they told me I had to be out, so I just left. My kids went to live with my mum, and I ended up homeless. It felt horrible. Horrible. I’ve never been in that situation before.

“I went to a homeless hostel. I was only there for a few weeks. I had a room of my own, but I didn’t feel safe. The place was full of people taking drugs. This was over Christmas and so that was also really hard on me and my kids.”

He is one of many vendors to have negative experiences of hostel accommodation.

“I don’t want to go into a hostel,” said Sheffield vendor Bruno after becoming homeless following a relationship breakdown. “I’ve seen people go in them and come out worse. There’s a lot of pressure in there.”

“I was sleeping rough on the streets for many years, but I have been in a hostel for a couple of months,” said Liverpool vendor Niko in 2020. “It is okay but there are some very noisy people there who fight, slam doors and shout. It is not possible to sleep there all the time.”

“I spent 16 months in a hostel, a horrible place,” said Doncaster vendor Rich. “They charge excessive amounts of money for people to be in there. They could spend that money on people who are in arrears with their rent. If they supported people in their own places, they wouldn’t end up in hostels in the first place. Just try to keep them housed!”

Other vendors have had their search for stable accommodation quashed by no pet housing policies. Manchester vendor Justin struggled to find somewhere to live with his dog, Bumper.

“It was difficult to find a place that let him live with me,” he said. “I stopped telling people I had him. Luckily the landlord of the place I’m in now is fine with dogs, so we landed on our feet. If there’d been a problem, I’d have moved out.”

Bumper is his main reason for living. “My plans for the future? Survive until Bumper dies,” he said. “After that, I don’t know. As long as he’s alive, I’ll be okay. After that, I don’t care… I keep going for Bumper. He’s my baby. I would be lost without him.”

For some people like Justin, being forced to choose between housing and remaining with their pets can end in tragedy. The Big Issue recently reported on the case of John Chadwick, who died by suicide after being separated from his cat and dogs in 2017.

His best friend, Dee Bonett, has spent the past six years campaigning for change.

The Renters (Reform) Bill 2023, which includes proposals to limit landlords’ abilities to ban pets, as well as to ban no fault evictions – a leading cause of homelessness – is currently making its way through UK Parliament. If it is passed, it could result in a significant reduction of people forced out of stable housing.

Until that time, many more will join the almost 3,000 people experiencing street homelessness in England due to abuse, relationship breakdown, job loss, traumatic experiences in hostels or the threat of separation from their pets – but never through choice.

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