(The Pavement, 5 April 2008) He has been editor of The Spectator, MP and Shadow Minister of Higher Education, but to most people Boris Johnson is that Eton-educated Tory with the shock of blonde hair who goes on Have I got News For You? and makes ill-advised comments about Liverpool. Yet it appears someone has had a word in his ear and suggested that to have a serious pop at winning the crown of London mayor, it might be time to lose the jester’s hat. So there were friendly smiles but no buffoonish jokes as Boris strode into the sparsely decorated County Hall room, and stood on the map of London stuck presidential seal-like on the floor and emblazoned with his campaign slogan ‘Back Boris’.
When handed a copy of The Pavement, Mr Johnson immediately remembered a much earlier brush with homelessness. “Actually one of the first things I ever gave away money to was Shelter, at primary school…”
Thankfully the mayor’s budget holds more money than the average piggy bank. So how would Mr Johnson spend these funds to help homeless people in London? “The most important thing is to help homeless people get the accommodation they need,” he says. “That is why I want to get people into some of the 84,000 empty homes across London. The number of empty homes has risen considerably in the last few years, and the number of people on housing waiting lists has gone up 68 per cent. There is an obvious solution there, it seems to me”.
One of the first things Boris did in his campaign was to visit St Mungo’s in Chelsea. “We talked to a wonderful guy, Edwin, and heard his life story and how homelessness can overtake anybody,” says Mr Johnson. “Growing up, he was a well-off guy, then suddenly he hit the buffers, everything went wrong, and his personal life broke down. These things are often accompanied by some breakdown in emotional, personal lives as well, and suddenly there just seems no way out”.
As mayor, Mr Johnson says he would encourage charities like St Mungo’s, although he warns that while hostels are part of the solution, “in the long run we need to get people off waiting lists and into accommodation. That is why I think homeless people should vote for me if they could vote.” I explain that in fact homeless people can vote, simply by making a declaration of local connection. “Oh, can they? Good!”
The GLA Act, passed in October 2007, gives the mayor of London responsibility for the capital’s housing strategy and investment as well as the power to decide how London’s public money for affordable housing will be spent. And with the newspapers full of credit crunches, repossessions and soaring mortgage interest rates, it is no wonder housing is a big part of the Back Boris campaign.
Like Ken Livingstone, Mr Johnson has pledged 50,000 new affordable homes in 2008-11 while also calling for protection of London’s green belt and an emphasis on quality as well as quantity. “Affordable must not mean second-best,” he says. “It must not mean high-rise council flats. It must not mean being cramped and overcrowded”. Despite these exacting standards, Boris reveals he is not averse to more ‘creative’ ideas. “There are lots of tricks that the current mayor is missing, like Hidden Homes.”
This is a scheme that has been run by Wandsworth Council since 2003. Mr Johnson applauds the council for doing a “fantastic job” finding homes in overlooked places. “They lifted the lid of an underground car park and turned it into lots of wonderful homes. There are 10,000 homes you could find like that”, he says, before mentioning “suburban tube stations” as another possible option.
For Mr Johnson, housing and homelessness are “two sides of the same coin”: Homelessness, he says is “a huge problem and you are dealing with people who have fallen through the housing net who feel completely hopeless and that there’s no one looking out for them”.
So does he back Homeless Link’s goal to eradicate rough sleeping by 2012? Or does he think this is Mr Livingstone being influenced by the upcoming Olympics in London? “I don’t know if it is linked to the Olympics,” he replies cautiously. “I certainly think it is sad there are so many rough sleepers and they deserve help and support.” He supports the target, but is wary of looking underhand. “We are not just doing it to make London look tidy for the Olympics,” he stresses. “We are doing it because we want to help people in their lives.”
However, Mr Johnson admits he is less up to speed with the issues over banning soup runs, a campaign recently put forward by Westminster Council. The scheme failed to obtain approval, and although Mr Johnson is “familiar with the controversy”, he wavers over who would get his support. “There seem to be two sides to the argument,” he says. “What John Bird has to say, I listen to with great respect and interest – I do not want to support measures that will unnecessarily keep people on the street. On the other hand, I do not want to snatch soup from the lips of hungry people. It would be pretty heartless to withhold it.” So which would it be? “We clearly need to work out what the best way forward there is. We will need to see how the Westminster experiment works,” he says.
He does, however, confirm that he is keen to support the voluntary sector and get money to worthy causes around London, like St Mungo’s. “I am also going to be setting up a Mayor’s Fund, which will be a big vehicle for getting money from the wealth-creating sector to the voluntary sector”. This will, he hopes, be a great thing for young people and the homeless, too.
Another hot topic surrounding homelessness in London is the increasing number of homeless people from particularly Central and Eastern Europe. What does Boris think of the situation many ‘A8s’ or A2 nationals (those from recent EU member states Romania and Bulgaria) find themselves in – powerless to claim benefits for a year, unable to find a job and left to fend for themselves on the streets?
“Obviously I hugely welcome the contribution that Polish immigrants have made, and people from all over the A8 countries; they are doing a fantastic job in London and they deserve support,” Mr Johnson enthuses. “But it would be a it would be a tragedy if people were coming to London and ending up in poverty and destitution, unable to get back to family who can look after them”. He cites his recent visit to the POSK centre in Hammersmith and his concern about the “growing” homelessness, despite networks and groups which support people within the Polish community.
Mr Johnson adds that he has a particular interest in the level of assistance provided for the number of ex-service men and women on the streets. Recent statistics suggest that one in four rough sleepers in London have a military background. Mr Johnson has pledged to introduce free bus travel for returning veterans of current wars. “I think it is about time that we did something for lots of people that are coming back from wars, which we may or may not agree with, and finding that the country they are fighting for is very cold and unwelcoming,” he says. “I think it would be a good thing to show some recognition of the sacrifices they have made.” He cannot resist adding: “I am pleased to see the mayor has now imitated us… he has had eight years to think of this, but has decided to do it as well – and about time too.”
During the interview he asks: “What’s your estimated of the number of rough sleepers in London?” and, when looking through The Pavement, “What’s the Soup Run Forum?” Perhaps Mr Johnson is keen to engage and learn more about the homeless community and the latest issues. He comments how every morning he cycles past the queue of people waiting outside St Martin’s in the Fields and wonders “what have they been doing all night?”
As we wind up the interview, The Pavement photographer asks Mr Johnson to pose with a copy of the magazine, which he does readily, flicking through the pages at the same time. He soon comes across the photo on the foot care page and with a cry of revulsion (“Ooh… aah… nasty!”), the serious politician demeanour slips and for a moment Mr Johnson is once again that young boy who did his bit for Shelter.