“As a poor person we don’t know the rules. The rich people know what to do.”
Tony, a softly spoken man of Afro-Caribbean descent in his early 30s, was driven into homelessness after breaking up with his girlfriend, the mother of his child. He has been without permanent accommodation since 2013 and, partly because of his dyslexia, has struggled to hold down work.
“A lot of people do get their things cut – the homeless, students, people on low incomes. Politicians don’t care about them because they don’t vote,” Tony says in a literary class at the homeless charity Crisis in Aldgate. Today’s discussion is about the general election. And, for all his cynicism about politicians, Tony is the only one of the six Crisis members attending who has ever voted before. “Even though they are corrupt, you have to work to change that.”
Do not expect any politicians to pop by anytime soon. Politicians are rational, vote-seeking creatures, and those who are homeless or lack steady accommodation do not represent a fertile source of votes.
“Like many other marginalised groups, homeless people are underrepresented when it comes to the ballot box,” says Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of Crisis. In the long-term the move to Individual Electoral Registration (voters now register individually rather than by household) could improve matters.
In England 55 per cent more people slept rough last year than in 2010.
But the fear is that the implementation of the new registration system, just 11 months before polling day, will not allow for a smooth transition. “There is a real risk that people from disadvantaged backgrounds will fall off the register this election,” Sparkes says. “Raising awareness of what people need to do to make their voices heard is more important than ever.”
That is one aim of the classes Crisis are running on politics. Statistics on homeless people voting are non-existent, but perhaps as few as 10 per cent will vote next month. The figure is partly so low because of misinformation: five of the six members of the class think that a fixed address is necessary to be able to vote.
That is not true. Any UK resident who does not have a permanent address can register through obtaining a Declaration of Local Connection from the appropriate local authority – though registering is seldom a priority for those unsure of where they will sleep from one night to the next. But the perception that homeless people cannot vote is revealing, emblematic of a belief that they are ostracised by society.
“I don’t trust politicians – they just give you a bagful of promises and never fulfill any of them,” says Daniel, a man in his late 20s, who complains that politicians get “backhanders”. Carlton, a Jamaican in his 50s, agrees: “I would care if these politicians are going to do something for John Public who really need help. What can they do for people like us?”
I ask what would make the group more likely to make the effort to vote in the future. “Diversity in politicians,” Tony says, eliciting nods of approval from those sitting around the table. “Whatever colour they are, it seems like they’re the same background.”
The group’s loathing of politicians is easily understood. Life for those without steady accommodation has become significantly worse under this government. Most fundamentally, there are many more of them.
Whichever statistics you look at, the picture is the same. According to official government figures, 2,714 people slept rough in England on any one night during 2014, 55 per cent more than did so in 2010. Local agencies report that 6,508 people slept rough in London alone throughout 2013/14 – a 77 per cent rise on 2010. In England, 111,960 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance in 2013/14, a 26 per cent rise since 2009/10.
Whichever statistics you look at, the picture is the same.
The Electoral Commission is not oblivious to this. It has issued guidance to electoral administrators to encourage them to work with local homelessness agencies and register people in their areas, and it has partnered with Shelter, the Salvation Army, the SHP and other charities to spread knowledge of voter registration among the homeless. The Cabinet Office have also awarded a grant of £100,000 to help its member organisations raise awareness.
Yet such a sum seems pitiful set against the challenge of getting homeless voters to the ballot box.
As with other under-represented groups – like young people and ethnic minorities – Labour would benefit if more people who are homeless or without stable accommodation voted.
“A higher turnout from homeless people is most likely to help Labour, on the basis that surveys have consistently shown that those on income support, unemployment, housing and other benefits are much more likely to vote Labour,” says Dr Stephen Fisher of Oxford University (who runs one of the half dozen election forecasts tracked by May2015).
Yet the low homeless population – even if it is rising – means there is no crude electoral logic for politicians to address why people slip into homelessness in the first place.
But the snapshot provided by the class at Crisis that homeless people do care for politics: scheduled to be 15 minutes, the class over-runs for an extra hour. “They’re all the same – whoever comes in, whoever comes out,” Daniel laments. “They spend money on war while there’s people starving – it’s as simple as that.” But while homeless people vote in such low numbers – and too little is done to get them to the ballot box – they are doomed to being ignored.
Names have been changed in this article.