At this time of year, millions of people, in churches, schools and homes, will be celebrating the birth of Jesus, in a stable because there was no room at the inn.
Last week, the Britannia Hotel in Hull cancelled and returned the £1092 payment – funded by donations - that had been made by the Raise the Roof Homeless Project to accommodate 28 homeless people over Christmas. No reason was given for the decision until, under pressure from media enquiries, Britannia Hotels said it had cancelled the booking after receiving reports that the group has caused “a serious problem” while staying at the Ibis hotel last year. However, no evidence to support the assertion was produced, and Ibis Hotels also denied that this had been the case.
The good news was that, on hearing this sad story, Doubletree by Hilton Hull stepped in and offered to accommodate the group for two nights, with breakfast and Xmas dinner included, on a complimentary basis. I say ‘Well done, Doubletree. You’ve managed to wrap up the Christmas story and the Parable of the Good Samaritan in one deed.’
I leave you to your own thoughts about Britannia Hotels’ conduct. However, it would be wrong to omit the fact that, having suffered considerable adverse publicity, Britannia subsequently reversed its decision …but by then it was too late.
Could this reputational damage be justified? I simply note that, last month, in a survey by Which? Travel, Britannia Hotels was voted the worst UK hotel chain for the sixth consecutive year, with nearly a quarter of guests making official complaints about poor customer service, rooms and food.
Obviously, Raise the Roof had not done their research before making the booking with Britannia. Fortuitously, 28 people now appear to be looking forward to a much better experience than might reasonably have been expected!
Twenty years ago, the incoming Labour government inherited yet another Conservative homelessness crisis. So, in 1999, Tony Blair launched Coming in from the Cold, a radical plan to tackle homelessness. As well as accommodation, the scheme included money for night squads, hostels and mental health teams. Within two years, homelessness was cut by two-thirds and rough-sleeping by three-quarters.
Rough sleeping remained below 500 people until 2010 when, first, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and, then, subsequent Conservative governments effectively abandoned those becoming homeless. Homelessness and rough-sleeping have dramatically increased throughout the country. The government’s own figures reveal that rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010. Since October last year, an estimated 484 people have died homeless. Last winter one in four severe weather services had to turn rough sleepers away.
As my colleague John Healey (Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, in Rotherham and Barnsley) said this week:
It beggars belief that, in twenty-first century Britain, there are parts of the country in which there is little or no shelter for those sleeping on the streets during extreme cold weather, and that the Government doesn’t even know which areas have this provision.
Don’t ever tell me that voting doesn’t make a difference. For tens of thousands of people, the election outcomes over the last twenty years have determined whether they slept in a dry, warm bed or on the cold, wet streets.
John Healey also announced Labour plans to give every rough sleeper a roof over their head – funded by the previously announced levy on second homes used as holiday homes - and to tackle the root causes of rising homelessness, with an end to the freeze on benefits, new rights for renters and a million low-cost homes.
However, as well as the big policies which are designed to dramatically cut homelessness and rough sleeping, we are all regularly faced with particular decisions about how we respond to individuals who are sleeping or begging on the street. It doesn’t matter whether we are in the High Street, or in our district shopping centre, or going to our local supermarket, we are likely to be confronted by someone sat on the pavement asking for our change. What to do?
In that context, I’m pleased to support the initiative HelpUsHelp – a coalition of residents’ groups, various charities and projects concerned with homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and domestic violence and Sheffield City Council - which is encouraging people to get involved helping people who beg and sleep rough in the city, but also offering advice on how we can best help.
- Give time or donations to charities that provide support – research shows that giving money directly to people who beg can do more harm than good
- Have a chat with someone and encourage them to access support services
- Give food or drink rather than money
- Buy a Big Issue. Vendors buy the Big Issue North and then sell it on to their customers. Vendors are working, not begging, and need public support
Although this is a Sheffield initiative, I’m sure the principles will be widely supported by agencies throughout South Yorkshire and neighbouring areas.
You can find out more at www.helpushelp.uk