As you read this column nearly 5,000 people of all ages will be preparing to spend another night sleeping rough on the streets of Britain — an experience beyond the worst nightmares of most of us.
It ought to be one of the basic building blocks of our society that every single person in this country should have a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep in at night if they wish, and I believe we have the wherewithal to make sure that happens.
Tragically, in the last five years around 2,600 people have died while sleeping rough on the streets, in doorways, perhaps even in fields or under hedges. That is 2,600 people too many.
Most of us have no idea what it is like to wonder where you are going to lay your head at night. As a Parliamentarian I feel it behoves me to try to understand the sort of issues we have to deal with in the House of Commons.
I have done a shift at Cramlington emergency hospital to see the pressures doctors, nurses, medical and non-medical staff face. I have also been on patrol to try to understand what our police have to deal with on duty — both experiences were real eye-openers.
So when the chance came, I agreed to join volunteers in an annual ‘Sleep Easy’ fund-raising initiative by YMCA Northumberland, which helps vulnerable young people.
Our challenge was to spend a night under the stars to find out what a shamefully high number of people have to face every day of their lives. The word ‘nightmare’ doesn’t come close to describing it.
With only a cardboard box for shelter, it was the coldest, most lonely, most frightening night of my life. It poured down; it was windy; it snowed; we got practically no sleep, and as I lay in my box, I got more and more angry, yet determined to do what I can to end this scourge of our society.
My ‘nightmare’ lasted only one night and when it was over after a relatively short number of hours I was able to go back home for a shower and some rest in a comfortable, warm bed.
Yet 5,000 people don’t have that luxury and have to start all over again to overcome the daily challenge of finding somewhere safe to survive another night outdoors.
People find themselves homeless for a variety of reasons – losing a job, a breakdown in family relationships, spiralling rents, mental health issues, using whatever money they have to feed an addiction, or cuts in welfare benefits they may have been receiving.
We also have to recognise that some people choose not to live in a home, and we have to respect them for that.
But as a society it is up us to do whatever is in our power to make sure as many people as possible who do want somewhere to call home have a roof over their heads so they don’t have to go through the same sobering and shocking experience I encountered.
In a recent report the homeless charity Shelter predicted that the situation is going to get worse over the next few years. It suggests that by 2040 up to 40,000 people could be sleeping rough and as many as 320,000 could be classified as homeless, which includes those living in temporary accommodation or hostels.
The authorities recognise that it is notoriously difficult to estimate the number of people sleeping rough because many choose to hide the fact by bedding down in derelict buildings or in the countryside.
The Government says it is directing £550million to address homelessness by 2020, and that has to be welcomed. But we have to ask, is it enough to end what is a housing crisis?
We need more new social housing and rents that people can afford, whether in public or private sectors, so that fewer people have to go through the experience I endured during a night under the stars. It was an experience no on should have to go through.