Last week I attended a Housing and Homelessness workshop, organised as a day of 'Continuing Ministerial Development' for clergy in the Oxford Diocese, which works not only in Oxford but across the whole of the Thames Valley - an area where housing and homelessness seem to have increasingly become very visible signs of the challenges faced by many of those living in our communities.
When one of those assembled introduced himself as Neo, a homeless man, I immediately felt this was going to be a training day like no other. It seemed we suddenly had an incredible opportunity to leave our fears at the door and to talk honestly about how we and the current systems seem ineffective in helping those who find themselves sleeping on the pavement.
We started the morning by exploring what having somewhere to call home actually means. In its simplest form, everyone seemed to agree it was a place of shelter, safety and hope; yet perhaps too it was also somewhere to keep any possessions that reminded you of who you are - providing you with an identity.
For my part, I had prepared a presentation on the findings of Oxfordshire Uncovered, which highlighted that almost 50% of the population earn an annual income less than the amount needed to afford the average market rent. This had also led me to review the recent government white paper, 'Fixing our Broken Housing Market'. This was one of those many lightbulb moments - but there in the title was the real problem.
Somehow through the passing years we appear to have boiled down our most basic human need for shelter to a 'market' that needs fixing.
In its opening pages, the white paper highlights many economic arguments to illustrate why the housing market needs fixing:
Low levels of house building mean less work for those involved in construction (architects, decorators, brick manufacturers), reducing receipts from employment income tax and corporation tax.
Lack of housing supply results in high demand for limited stock, creating high rents; those in private rentals therefore struggle to pay, and the taxpayer has to pay out more in housing benefit.
A higher percentage of income spent on housing means less money gets spent in the wider economy.
Housing is one of the few investments that can be bought with debt, making it easy for some to ‘get a foot on property ladder’; but this is creating an ever-widening gap in the property 'haves' and 'have nots'.
Yet, whilst these are of course all true, for me they miss the very essence of why housing matters, and how this is affecting the lives and wellbeing of so many in our communities.
In particular, wherever there is an acute shortage of housing, this creates opportunities for exploitation and abuse - for example, non-ethical letting of dangerous, overcrowded properties. Indeed, the loss of a private sector tenancy is now the most common cause of homelessness - depriving many of safe, secure shelter.
This is a really important issue, and one I would urge everyone to consider during the election campaign period that we now find ourselves in. We should all ask ourselves: "What do the various manifestos say about plans for providing affordable housing?"
Neo lives what many would find an unconventional life. Homeless by choice he can often be found busking on the streets of central Oxford. Listen to the songs, say hi, and pick up a copy of the album if you like it.