Elections and the homeless: who is heard?
By Lauren Asfour, on 30 April 2015
With the UK elections creeping up on us, on the 7th May, I’d like to grapple with the volatile question of elections for who? Given the general apathy towards voting and politics, and the Guardian asking us, “are you engaged and energised by the election campaign – or can’t wait for it to end?”, I find myself considering: who is being represented in the political sphere, and are those marginalised by society being heard? On the MSc Social Development Practice, we have been exploring the importance of hearing from those who are regarded to be on the margins of society, and how their voice can be articulated to generate new knowledge and approaches to urban development.
The government encounters complex challenges in identifying those experiencing homelessness, particularly with the presence of the ‘Hidden Homeless’, who typically reside in bed and breakfast hotels or sleep on friends’ sofas. As such, there is no distinct voting classification for the homeless as a ‘sector’, but rather these individuals are grouped with those living in social housing.
My personal concern is that government fails to recognise the diversity between those experiencing homelessness and those in social housing – and thus an ignorance of the difference between those who benefit from the state, and those who appear to fall outside the system. Although those experiencing homelessness have a right to vote and exercise their voice in society, figures indicate that while 74% of homeowners turned out to vote at the last UK election, only 55% of those living in social housing (and those experiencing homelessness) voted. Such statistics would indicate that many of these individuals are not articulating their voice.
Democracy for who?
While the government maintains that it is working to ensure homeless people have and can access their rights, organisations such as Homeless Link ask: “are residents of social housing and homelessness services really part of democracy?” The government might argue that rough-sleepers’ right to vote indicates that they can access the ballot along with the rest of society – but are they doing so? Those experiencing homelessness need a declaration form from local authorities to vouch for them – but will such bureaucratic hurdles actually encourage individuals to engage in the system?
Encouraging homeless voters
The ‘Your Vote Counts’ scheme is an initiative funded by government, aiming to engage rough-sleepers and those in social housing to participate more actively in democratic practices through voting. This is a great encouragement, and I look forward to seeing how such initiatives will materialise in the upcoming election.
With growing inequality in the UK, the voices of the marginalised are vital if we are to develop our society into one which safeguards all members of our community. Organisations such as Homeless Link are working diligently to encourage such engagement, with a recent article endeavouring to break down the barriers for those experiencing homelessness and provide clarity on themes such as:
- Have a say on important issues
- Make sure decision makers don’t ignore your views
- Improve your credit rating
- No fixed address? No problem
- Keep your information private
- Register online in minutes
- You don’t have to go to a polling station
Individualism or Dependence?
My question to all (and to myself), is how can we engage those experiencing homelessness – and others who have become marginalised by social structures – to contribute in the political sphere? How can we encourage such individuals into invited spaces for participation, to learn from their experiences and create substantive change for our society? 
No matter who comes into government, whether you believe in the power of the welfare state or not – it is important that we don’t forget our individual duty to care, outside of the model propelled by the state. At the third annual conference on Homelessness, Social Exclusion and Health Inequalities, Dr Lynne Friedli, author of Mental Health, Resilience and Inequalities, highlighted that dependency is not failure, but rather a feature of being human.
As a sense of community is eroding, particularly amidst a growing individualism in London, how are we recognising our natural dependency on one another? And thus, if the vulnerable aren’t being heard, what is our role in advocating for their needs? Whilst inequality continues and homelessness remains prevalent in our society, how do we avoid silencing the most vulnerable – the very people who will depend most on the social system that all of our votes shape?
Lauren Asfour is currently studying the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. She has been part of research in London on Regeneration Aspirations for Euston: Local Perspectives on the High Speed Two Rail Link and is a volunteer at ASLAN.