Action on Homes Conference

David Thomas speaking at the launch of the campaign. Photo credit Norman Miller.

On 22nd October 2122 Brighton & Hove Housing coalition hosted a Conference entitled Action on Homes at the Brighthelm Centre, which gathered many important players to talk about the housing crisis both here in Brighton & Hove and nationally. You can read more about this, and can listen to and watch presentations, here. David Thomas, acting co-chair of the Coalition, made a brief speech about the Homeless Bill of Rights and its influence on the Council which may be viewed here.

This is what he said.

I’m David Thomas, legal officer of the Housing Coalition. I am here to talk to you about, to remind you of the Homeless Bill of Rights. It was mentioned in Dan’s gripping introductory video; many of you will have signed the petition for the Council to adopt it. I should just outline what it is for those of you who are not already familiar with it.

The Homeless Bill of Rights is a European document, put together by voluntary organisations working with homeless people as a charter for cities to adopt. It starts with our international obligation to a right to a home, though it exists because we have failed to make that real. It demands the right to shelter for all who want it, so that no-one is ever forced to sleep rough in our city. It is also full of practical rights, such as the right to access adequate sanitary facilities; but above all it is a demand for people without homes to be treated the same as the rest of us, not as a problem to be solved, but as people with rights and dignity; a demand for a different way of seeing, talking about, and acting with homeless people. …

The Housing Coalition began a campaign to have this document adopted by this City with a launch in this building in October 2018. This conference for us honours two former chairs who have died since then. Steve Parry chaired the launch of the Homeless Bill of Rights, and Barry Hughes spoke to the Council at the presentation of the petition. Both the Green Party and the Labour Party put it in their manifestos, but it still took a long campaign, including the petition, demonstrations, deputations, questions, arguments in consultations, and much lobbying before it was incorporated into the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Strategy in June 2020 and finally was fully adopted by the City Council on 25th March 2021. It was adopted as an aspiration and as “the standard against which the Council and its partners judge its policies and practices and outcomes”. That was a great victory; it is down to everyone who took part in the campaign, but special thanks of course go to David Gibson and Siriol Hugh-Jones, then and now joint chairs of housing, and Gill Williams, Labour shadow chair of housing, who together pushed it through.

But what has happened since? I have no doubt that the three councillors I have named, and many others, still strongly believe in the principles of the Bill of Rights. But – and here I am happy if anyone can correct me – there is precious little sign of it having made a difference to the practice of the officers of the City or its partners. I will take just one example of what I mean. The Coalition are members of the Homeless Reduction Operations Board, chaired by the Executive Director of Housing, the body which is supposed to oversee the operations of the Council and its partners in the field of homelessness. Its first meeting was four months after the Bill of Rights was adopted by the Council. I searched all the minutes and agendas and documents presented to it, including the Action plan, and found precisely one reference to the Homeless Bill of Rights. It was in the minutes of the first meeting when I asked why it was not part of the terms of reference of the Board. The Executive Director simply said that the Board had no power to change the terms.

In one sense this is not exactly a surprise. Senior officers in the Council were never exactly welcoming to the idea that administrative efficiency was not the same thing as humanity, or that homeless people had rights, and there never seemed to be much enthusiasm in the managers of the voluntary sector either.

Was it all in vain, then?

No, not at all. This document is a campaigning document. Like the City of Sanctuary movement, we have inscribed our rights and principles into the official heart of the Council. Now we can use it in our campaigns, to force people with power to take it seriously in fights on behalf of individuals and policies. If the Council is unwilling to use it as “a standard to judge its policies and practices and outcomes”, then let us, the concerned citizens of this city, use it instead. The Homeless Bill of Rights declares that all of us, whether or not we have settled homes, are equal in dignity and rights, and we must never give up the struggle to make that a reality.

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