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‘They’re virtually invisible’

Unite’s staff lend a hand with Holborn office pop-up shelter
Hajera Blagg, Friday, February 1st, 2019

As sub-zero temperatures continued into last night (January 31) amid the UK’s latest cold snap, battering towns and cities with snow, Unite’s headquarters opened its doors to rough sleepers for the second consecutive night at a time when shelters are at maximum capacity.


Unite’s central office is now serving as a ‘pop-up shelter’ as part of the London Mayor’s severe weather emergency protocol for people who are homeless, and is being staffed by housing charity St Mungo’s workers and supported by Unite maintenance staff who’ve worked tirelessly to aid some of society’s most vulnerable.


Unite maintenance technician Bill Bailey, who lent a hand on Wednesday night (January 30) into Thursday morning (January 31) hailed the operation, noting that “everything went smoothly like clockwork” as he praised St Mungo’s staff and Unite for providing the space.


Bill noted the great diversity of people who sought shelter at Unite’s headquarters, including Romani, Eastern Europeans, and English people among others – a fact that highlights that homelessness knows no borders.


And, in a grim indictment of Tory Britain, Bill said that in his conversations with those who stayed overnight at Unite’s central office, many of them do in fact work – mainly in construction – but still cannot afford a roof over their heads.


“Many of the people who stayed with us sleep in the streets in the area – in front of shop doors, or some might seek shelter on night buses, but they’re gone very early in the morning, many off to work, so most of us don’t even notice them,” Bill said. “They’re virtually invisible.”


This was a point echoed by Paul Noblet, head of public affairs for Centrepoint, a homeless youth charity, who told the Morning Star that we should be wary of the latest homeless statistics published yesterday (January 31) because there are “many more hidden homeless people” and that the figures were “only the tip of the iceberg”.


Bill went on to say that the rough sleepers he spoke to all voiced a great appreciation for Unite’s help, and that many took an interest in learning more about the trade union movement.


Above all, Bill said that his experience highlighted the fact that “homelessness could happen to any one of us”.


“Under this Tory government, especially with policies such as Universal Credit, we’re only two pay packets away from sleeping on the streets with nowhere to go. The government has got it in for people – under them it’s no longer a caring country.”


Bill added that while he was very proud of his employer Unite for stepping up to lend a helping hand, it should come as no surprise.


“This is what Unite and the wider trade union movement is all about – we look after people,” he said. “We’re a caring union.”


Unite executive council chair Tony Woodhouse agreed.


“We’re all about caring in the community,” he said. “It’s a national scandal that in the sixth richest economy in the world we are desperately searching for places for people to stay. In London, 47 per cent of office space lies empty while we have vulnerable people sleeping on the streets – it’s a disgrace.”


“Speaking of office space,” Bill added with a wry smile. “I know a place down Matthew Parker Street, the Tory Party headquarters – maybe we should ask them if they’ll open their doors and help out?”

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