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Interview: Kathy Mohan, chief executive, Housing Justice

13 October 2017

‘At a very basic level, supply does not meet demand’

I just wanted to serve. I’m a housing and homelessness professional with more than 30 years of experience working in this sector. I’m also a long-standing night-shelter volunteer within the Housing Justice framework. I’d been seeking for a way to express my faith through my work; this role enables me to do just that.

I started volunteering through the winter night-shelter scheme: an ecumenical operation supported by Housing Justice. We offer a quality mark — an accreditation — to make sure that shelters are operating in a safe way. We always call the people we serve our “guests”; and we offer volunteers the chance to train, meet each other, and continue to learn. There are 79 night shelters in England, nine of which started last year.

In Barnet, where I am, we looked at becoming a charity rather than just a group of volunteers, which allowed us to employ someone, and ensure a long-term future. Most shelters have paid staff, and it’s a big effort to raise the money for that, but they can harness all that volunteer effort in the community.

Housing Justice was founded in 2003, when the Catholic Housing Aid Society and the Churches National Housing Coalition merged. It expanded in 2006, when it merged with United London Ecumenical Action on Single Homelessness. These heritage organisations were inspired by Christians who wanted to take action to tackle homelessness, and prevent it happening.

We aim to be the Christian voice on the issues of homelessness and housing. We work as facilitators — mainly with churches, but also with other faith and community groups. We advise and support individuals and groups in running night shelters for rough-sleepers, host destitute migrants, and use church land for affordable housing. Church communities want to help, and there’s a new branch of Housing Justice in Wales, and four shelters there.

Churches get together to offer people church facilities to keep people safe overnight (we work with synagogues as well). We offer our church hall; we have bedding, give them supper, and watch television with them, one night a week each. Just one night a week takes a very significant volunteer base for different shifts. Four or five people greet, cook, and give companionship; two people sleep the night; the breakfast shift cooks breakfast and gets the hall ready for whatever bookings there are, and another volunteer or two move the bedding on to the next hall for the next night. We’ve had up to 21 venues in the past, so that we could move the whole thing on every few months. We found that people enjoyed it.

We work in partnership with a day centre, and they try to move people on. But it’s getting much harder to rehouse people than it was ten years ago. But we keep them safe, and give them companionship.

The migrants whom we work with are people who’ve lost their status to remain in the UK, or who are working to get status. People are invited to host them in a room in their house — that’s allowed — and we take referrals from agencies and place them with host families while they are trying to get their right to remain. When they have that status, they are usually housed in some way. We also work with clergy — especially Capital Mass [a joint venture between the diocese of London and the Church Urban Fund] — to provide destitute migrants with rooms in their church housing.

We also campaign and run groups for like-minded individuals and organisations to meet at events like the Soup Run Forum and the Christian Homeless Forum.

At a very basic level, supply does not meet demand. This makes good housing more and more expensive and difficult to get; so we arrive at a situation where many people are unable to meet their housing needs. The young are disproportionately affected as they try to access housing for the first time.

Successive governments have identified the need to create more homes, but they haven’t succeeded in turning out new homes to match their targets. The Royal Town Planning Institute has reported that targets for new build should be 300,000 per year. The most recent target is 200,000, and last year we didn’t even achieve that, with only 164,000 new builds, which meant 189,000 homes, if you include conversions.

It’s not just that we’re falling short in building lower-cost homes: we’re falling short of the whole target. There are shortages of land. In some parts of the country, especially in the north, there’s more than enough housing; but, in the south, it’s more difficult. Higher-density building was out of vogue for some years, and, even with the higher allowances now, there’s still a shortage. The shortage is most acute at the lower end of the market, but it’s all around, and that makes the prices go up. It’s such a big, big problem for us; there are probably lots of different strands to the answer.

People are sharing homes out of necessity now: young and not-so-young adults are living with their parents. Figures from 2013 identified that 26 per cent of adults between 20 and 34 were still living at home with their families, and many younger people were sharing flats for longer than they used to. There was also data from Spareroom, in 2015, which showed that in the age group 45 to 54 there had been a 300-per-cent increase in flat-sharing in just five years. It’s very much become a cross-generational phenomenon.

In post-war Britain, there was quite a lot of multi-generational living, but people did aspire to set up their own homes, and generally did, as house-building increased. It’s usual for people to want their independence, and, for most, this means having their own home. If continuing to live with family or friends is an enforced choice, it’s clearly not a good situation, and it’s right that people can expect to have their own safe housing.

Housing costs are rising much faster than wages. Our research is identifying some shocking trends in terms of affordability, which is most acute in London. For someone on the London Living Wage, it will cost them between 57 per cent and 63 per cent of their gross income to pay for a bedroom in a shared house. Working people everywhere are struggling to pay their rent: 14 per cent of the working population claim housing benefit to help meet the cost of their rent. That’s an uncomfortably high figure.

In many parts of the country, at particular pressure points, population growth is outstripping growth in supply. For example, the Office for National Statistics reports that the population in Bristol grew by nearly 50,000 in just four years. House-building for the city cannot keep up. On top of the regional cities, the population of London is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the country. Rural areas have their own pressures, particularly beauty spots; so it can be equally difficult to get housing there.

My advice would be to return to a system of subsidising the building of social housing. This keeps rents affordable for those on lower incomes, without an ongoing benefit burden. But I’d also pray for regulation of the private rented sector.

I grew up in London, living in social housing. I love London — it’s a city that offers something to you at all stages in your life. I was a student in Manchester, but apart from that I’ve stayed in London.

I live with my husband. Our grown-up daughter has moved out, and back, and out again; so it’s the two of us at home now. We’re practising Anglicans in a church community with a strong mission to support the homeless, and we’re both active in a voluntary capacity in this through our church and local charities.

Home to me is my safe place. I love it, and I’m fortunate to live in a very neighbourly community where there’s friendship. I have a strong sense of belonging — something that I wish everyone could have.

You can have a sense of belonging in big cities: they’re just a collection of villages. That’s where you get your sense of neighbourhood and belonging. I live in a huge city myself, but I’m connected in with my high street, church, places where I go for a coffee, and so on, as well as having access to the centre of London.

I was bought up a Christian, and, because of that, I feel that God has always been in my life. But my faith has strengthened in the past 20 years.

Laughter is my favourite sound. And I sing in my church choir. The mixture of beautiful words and music together have the ability to both move and settle me.

I pray most for people I know who are in distress. I pray for the Holy Spirit to be with them.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d like to have Desmond Tutu as a companion, without hesitation. I’m fascinated by him, because he emanates joy and peace, and he shouldn’t, with what he’s experienced. His movement for reconciliation changed the way people thought in so many ways. I think he’s an inspiration.

Kathy Mohan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. info@housingjustice.org.uk

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