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The Policy Ask with Matt Downie: “There is no excuse for people to be living and dying on our streets”

The CEO of Crisis on rogue landlords, the inhumanity of the “hostile environment” mantra and Finland’s housing-first policy.

By Spotlight

Matt Downie is chief executive at the homelessness charity Crisis. Previously, he was Crisis’ director of policy and external affairs, and before that he worked at Action for Children, the National Autistic Society and Shelter.

How do you start your working day?

Early. I’ve been trying to avoid crowded Tubes since Covid, so I basically stumble into the day when it is dark and wake up as I go. This time of year, I also check how our fundraising is going first thing, as Crisis is almost entirely funded by our wonderful supporters, and most of it comes through winter appeals for help. I used to be one of those people who check Twitter in the morning, but my mental health is now too important for that!

What has been your career high?

Running a successful campaign for the Autism Act 2009, something that marked a turning point for the recognition of autism in the UK, and especially for adults with autism who had been ignored by so many services until then. It also taught me that if you have a proven problem, workable solutions and political nous, anything is possible.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

I’m living it now. I have my dream job, my first as a CEO, but there are massive challenges at every turn and there isn’t a manual for any of them. Homelessness is going up, fast, and more and more people are coming to us for help. The cost-of-living crisis is hitting us hard as income is harder to come by. And we have yet to break through in Westminster to achieve a credible strategy to prevent and end homelessness. The job is nonetheless a serious privilege – I’m very lucky.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

After a pointless start as a junior accountant (a noble profession, but I was rubbish at it), I was given a big chance to prove myself as a campaigner by someone who saw something in me and gave me a chance. So, don’t waste time on things you’re not good at or interested in. Get behind your passions, learn the skills you need, and don’t let others with bigger brains and better backgrounds put you off.

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Which political figure inspires you?

My political hero is the late MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Paul Goggins. We worked together on campaigns to help young people in the care system. He had a keen eye for what was politically doable and squeezing the maximum out of it. If I ever had the unlikely chance to be an MP, I would follow his example of choosing a few things you care deeply about and forensically going about getting what you want. He also had a killer phrase for parliamentary lobbying: “When your opponent walks halfway towards you, don’t poke them in the eye.”

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The government is about to start taking action against rogue landlords who exploit loopholes in the benefits system that can leave homeless and vulnerable people living in squalor. This is a growing racket, where money is made by claiming to provide “supported housing”, ruining lives and leaving communities to pick up the pieces. This is a massive issue, hidden in plain sight, and the government has got behind some legislation we have proposed to deal with it.

And what policy should the UK government ditch?

The “no recourse to public funds” rules, which restrict access to welfare for nearly 1.4 million people, are almost a guaranteed way to produce homelessness. People who have lived in the UK for sometimes decades are left with nothing if the worst happens and they can no longer afford their housing. People can’t access benefits or help from councils, and a raft of other public services are blocked. This was all part of the “hostile environment” dogma of a few years back, which sadly remains politically accepted by both main parties. It is inhumane and should be scrapped if we aspire to any minimum standards of human dignity.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

In Wales and Scotland, laws are coming that will start to design out homelessness for good – creating a full safety net for those in need and asking the wider state to prevent people from losing their homes. These will be world-leading legal moves. In England, we look forward to Michael Gove finally abolishing “no fault” evictions, which cause untold misery.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

The Finnish model of ending homelessness through a housing-first model, giving everyone who is homeless a home (not a bed, a hostel, or a place in homelessness accommodation), and providing support to those who need it. It is a simple yet transformative idea – stop spending time and money managing homelessness, and instead provide the housing required for those most in need, as part of a housing strategy for all. It is a proved model, and we need the government to be radical and ambitious in adopting it.  

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

The “Everybody In” Act 2023 – putting the emergency measures during the pandemic on a legal footing, giving every local council the duty and the resources to help everyone off the street, through a housing-first approach.

There really is no excuse for people to be living and dying on our streets – we know what to do, so political will is the missing ingredient. Let 2023 be the year that we glimpse the beginning of the end of homelessness, starting with saving the lives of people living on our streets.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Adam Lent: “You can’t rip resources away from councils and claim to have a moral compass”]