There's a general election in a few weeks. This probably hasn't escaped your attention, because the media at large is doing all it can to make sure you know exactly what's going on every step of the way.
Pollsters and pundits are trying to work out what everyone thinks. TV shows are ushering undecided voters down rivers to illustrate that they're floating. David Cameron is discussing how many Shredded Wheat you're meant to eat for your breakfast. Somewhere in a marginal constituency's Aldi, Kenneth Clarke is doing Gangnam Style down the frozen foods aisle in a highly misguided attempt to court the youth vote. All eyes, it seems, are on Westminster's corridors of power.
But what do the homeless people sharing Westminster with the UK's leaders think about the election? The borough of Westminster has one of the highest homelessness rates of anywhere in the country, and according to figures released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, homelessness has risen by 55 percent nationwide since David Cameron became prime minister in 2010 – so I figured there would be plenty of opinions regarding how the country's being run among the homeless population local to his place of work.
It's a little publicised fact that you don't need a permanent address to vote. The law was changed some years ago in an attempt to enfranchise the homeless, who can register "a park bench, a bus shelter or the doorway to a high street store", according to Electoral Commission guidelines. Billy, a homeless man in his early twenties, may be doing just that for the first time this May.
"I've never voted in my life," he tells me in Parliament's Members' Dining Room, where YMCA – a charity that provides over 10,000 beds a night for homeless and vulnerable young people – has brought together a number of homeless people to put their experiences to politicians.
A young man named Romario interrupts: "I wasn't interested in politics until I got kicked out, but now I've learned about it 'cause I've been through stuff, and I want them to understand things."
But do politicians understand? Thirty-three percent of MPs were privately educated, compared with seven percent of the population. That figure falls, barely, to 31 percent of the candidates predicted to win in a few weeks time. One fifth went to either Oxford or Cambridge. This isn't to say that privately-educated people aren't capable of empathy, because that's plainly false. But it does speak to a level of privilege among the political class that could make it difficult to truly understand the issues affecting those they govern.
"If you're homeless and then watch the news, and the news is going on about third world countries and how they're doing, it winds you up," says Billy. "They're sending loads of stuff over to those countries but can't sort [our] own out first. In a way it makes you angry."
Today, Billy and Romario aren't watching the news; they're metres away from the prime minister's dispatch box. I ask what they would do if they held power for one day.
"Nah, I don't want power, judging by the stress they get!" says Romario, hesitating for a second to reconsider. "You know what? I'd make everyone equal for that day. I'd love to sit there – as horrible as it sounds – and take all the people with the well-paid jobs and nice houses and swap lives with those who aren't so fortunate. Those who haven't been brought up with a nice trust fund or whatever. I'd just want them to see how hard it is from our point of view. Just for one day."
From Parliament's terrace you can see the outline of Canary Wharf in the distance. Many would argue that's really where the power lives, not in Westminster.
"I pity them, to be honest. In my mind it's like you've been fed through a silver spoon. You don't understand the true value of money 'cause you've got it all," says Billy. "I don't understand the computers and that – I like hands-on stuff. To me, that's hard physical work, but they're getting paid all the money."
"I used to be one of those people who didn't want to know – I'd be like, 'Pfft, politics.' I'd have laughed in your face, honestly," admits Romario, before explaining how the YMCA had opened his eyes. "They show you how it works. They make you want to get involved. It's made me a better person if anything."
"I'd like to think I could be one of [the elite]," says Billy. "I do think some of them understand. But I probably will never be a banker or an MP or anything. It doesn't really happen to people like me."
Joanne is 23. One year ago her family lost their home. "It was very sudden. It was just gone and I had nowhere to live – my whole family. It made me pretty angry," she tells me.
The YMCA took her in, and she's now lived with them for a year. She's registered to vote, but not sure of the point: "I think some of them try to understand, but they just don't know what it's like – they haven't been through it."
During Joanne's day as prime minister she would "build more houses! A lot more houses, 'cause there ain't enough. And youth groups, so that young people have somewhere to go and to help them understand things. If I didn't have the YMCA – well, I'd be working hard to find myself somewhere. But the truth is I'd probably be on the streets. There'd be nothing to help."
Julie Hilling has spent five years as the MP for Bolton West after a long career in youth work. And, understandably, she's angry with the way things are going.
"How can we be the sixth biggest economy in the world, and the biggest growth industry is food banks?" she asks. "It should be in statute that local authorities have to provide youth workers so they've got somewhere to turn to. Some young people just can't afford to participate in education and things – that's how this happens.
"We need to say, 'How am I going to make sure that doesn't happen to any other young person?' I've been [in Parliament] five years and it's so slow, the legislation. I argue with another party and with my own side to get this change. But if young people don't speak up we'll end up in the same mess over and over again. It's time for these people to push and tell us the changes they need."
You can register to vote until the 20th of April. Read more about the YMCA's work at ymca.org.uk.
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