Groundswell researcher Sarah Hough interviewed Melanie Onn, 39, Labour MP for Great Grimsby. Here she talks about how her experience of homelessness has shaped her views and approach as a member of the UK parliament.
Melanie recently stepped down as the Shadow Minister for Housing but during her time in post, she advocated for people experiencing homelessness. When she was a teenager Melanie experienced homelessness and she explained to Sarah how these experiences have guided her as a politician.
“When I became an MP what I wanted to do, and hope I have done, is speak up for people particularly young people who are facing homelessness and raise that issue and encourage the Government to make sure there is enough support for young people; particularly because I think people end up in a cycle quite early on of insecure housing and never really getting a level footing then they are much more at risk of it just repeating itself through their lives. So having gone through that and lived that experience and being 17 years old, and having no idea about any of the benefit systems, no idea that there was even a charity out there that could specifically help me, it probably has given me a little bit more insight into how things can go wrong even in ordinary circumstances”.
Melanie spoke about the stigma surrounding homelessness and how she challenges negative perceptions presented in the media and at times also in Parliament.
“Before I resigned [as Shadow Minister for Housing], I was on the radio and I was asked about some MP’s who’d made a complaint about people sleeping rough in the subway under Parliament and they were asked to move along and the police had said we’re going to use this really ancient piece of legislation, the vacancy act to move them on. I said on the radio, parliamentarians of all people shouldn’t be saying that and I hope that isn’t the case that anybody did say they didn’t want to see it as they walked into work because that isn’t the kind of attitude I’d expect any parliamentarian to give.”
Melanie cites the global economic crash of 2008 as the catalyst for rising homelessness, austerity and reduced spending by the Government. This resulted in the termination of ‘Supporting People’ funding, the loss of many youth services, the introduction of other punitive policies like the bedroom tax and zero-hour contracts which have drawn people into rent arrears and poverty.
The more recent controversial roll out of Universal Credit has resulted in long delays in rent and benefit payments for many people and their families. Homelessness has increased for people from all walks of life, many who are working, but still can’t afford the high rents of the unregulated private rented sector especially in cities like London. This is compounded by the severe shortage of social housing and affordable housing. Melanie explains how more people in recent years are slipping through safety nets;
“There have been lots of policy decisions, in the last 10 years particularly, that have made it more likely for people to fall out of the housing system and in London particularly and some of the big cities once you’re out of it getting back in is just so hard.”
Melanie regards the Homelessness Reduction Act positively, but she also recognises its limitations; the increased responsibilities of local authorities to complete the preventative work without the funding to match. While other conflicting policy issues make the task even harder.
“I feel like it’s the Government delegating its responsibilities and I would have much rather seen a National ministerial led task force to deal with homelessness rather than just saying to local authorities, you just deal with it”.
Melanie predicts an increasing reliance on charities to try to fill some of the gaps and speaks of the importance of grassroots charities like Groundswell;
“Charities are doing great work, seeing Groundswell make inroads in the political arena. I think it’s really important, it’s a grassroots organisation, which is rooted in the community. It’s doing really excellent work and it’s providing a forum for people to air their concerns and to get right to the heart of where changes can be made whether that’s in local authorities with counsellors or whether it’s in parliament with MPs.”
Melanie Onn MP attended Groundswell’s ‘International Women’s Day’ celebration in March 2019 (pictured below). This showcased the work of Groundswell’s peer journalists and launched their upcoming women’s peer research project. Read a summary of the day here.