‘2020 has been both tough and great. But life is always a mixed bag and so you have to be ready for anything’

How Birmingham council housing chief Sharon Thompson found light in a year of dark

2020 has been a varied year for Birmingham councillor Sharon Thompson who as the housing chief of Europe’s largest local authority, has had to respond to the horrific realities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the city amongst other issues but who also has found light in her life professionally and personally.

2020 has been a year which most of us would like to forget. Blighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues, the UK like the rest of the world has found itself struck by tragedy, shock and chaos. Such effects have been especially prominent in Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city.

‘‘2020 has been very varied. The impact of coronavirus has been absolutely appalling in Birmingham and as the councillor in charge of homelessness, death registrations and bereavement services, it’s been incredibly tough to deal with professionally and personally,’’ says Thompson.

‘‘But that’s just one side of the coin. In many aspects, I’ve had many positives in life, I’ve gained positive prominence in the wider community and have been recognised for it and overall, I’ve grown as a person, I’ve learnt about a lot about myself like how I deal with crises and it has tested my leadership skills.’’

An integral figure in Birmingham’s local government and the wider city community and beyond and whose leadership regarding tackling homelessness in the city has been widely praised, Thompson has received many awards and accolades in 2020 ranging from winning a National Baton award to an M’QUE Women Who Rock award along with being nominated for a CCLA Councillor Award.

‘‘Both of those awards made me feel quite special because I was nominated by others working in the council. And with the Baton award especially, I was up against some amazing nominees including a former mayor of Barking & Dagenham. And the fact I won, I just couldn’t believe it,’’ Thompson says.

In addition, Thompson has also gained increasing respect and prominence in the city and nationally for her crucial work in tackling Birmingham’s homelessness problem, having helped 70 sleepers off the street in a week and having helped over 1,000 people in the city avoid homelessness in total since the pandemic began, something which she says resulted in the city council being praised by the Government as ‘‘exemplar.’’

As such, she has become a prominent speaker on the issue at various webinars and conferences on a local and a national level throughout the year, including organisations such as the LGA (Local Government Association), Voice of Authority and others, sharing her reflections of the city’s strategy regarding homelessness and coronavirus. In addition, outside of work, she has also joined two boards including the Black Country Housing Group and that of Worcestershire NHS Acute Trust along with becoming a trustee of a Walsall-based charity called Steps to Work.

‘‘Gaining these awards and nomination, joining these boards and achieving so much regarding homelessness were some of the biggest things in 2020 for me,’’ Thompson says.

‘‘Especially regarding the homelessness, I was really happy we achieved so much as homelessness was brought to single figures at one point and even now is lower than other British cities.

‘‘No one deserves to be homeless and partly because I was once homeless myself and I received support so I’m really glad to be able to give back.’’

Thompson has also become involved in tackling homelessness, housing problems and rough sleeping nationally, lobbying and meeting various government ministers and writing many letters on such issues along with support for renters during the pandemic, support and clarity for those with no recourse to public funds and more. 

‘‘I became more involved in national politics in 2020 and I’ve done a lot of work to try and tackle housing issues, rough sleeping, homelessness and more,’’ she adds.

Having also been appointed as the first ambassador for the Birmingham-based Arts For Charity project, Thompson has been engaging further with the community and the project itself will donate all proceeds to charities across the city.

‘‘We have an amazing street artist called Gent-48 who is ranked as one of the best in the whole country who created a mural reflecting the city’s response to COVID in Digbeth and a photo was taken and made into print and that was signed by over 250 people’’ she says.

‘‘Signatures included people like Joe Lycett (comedian), MP’s, businessmen and women, people from charities, influencers, those on the forefront against corona and more, it was amazing.

‘‘It has all been very exciting and positive for me to take part.’’

Regarding her personal life, Thompson says she has also made ‘‘inroads’’ in that particular aspect and has ‘‘grown as an individual,’’ and has begun writing a book about her life. 

‘‘Honestly overall if I’m honest, despite all my achievements, the biggest thing in 2020 is that I’ve maintained my sanity so far and that I’ve become a better and stronger person and that I’ve have been trying new things, such as life journaling,’’ she says.

‘‘I started life journaling in October 2020 and I’ve wrote 80 A4 pages, and nearly 56,000 words as part of my book. It has helped me cope with the pandemic and life around me and has kept me occupied throughout lockdown.’’ 

It has been an ‘‘achievement’’, she adds.

Asked what goals she has for 2021, Thompson says she has ‘‘many’’ and that she wants to achieve even more this year, including further supporting the new boards she now sits on, participating in a residential study trip to Oxford University as part of a course called Pathways to Success run by Operation Black Vote and more, but most importantly she says, being a ‘‘more diligent person, a more diligent mum, friend and Cabinet member.’’

‘‘I’ve got a lot of things I want to do in 2021 like I want to be more active with the organisations and boards I’m already involved with, I am also aiming to publish my book this year and in general, I just want to grow even more as a person,’’ she says.

Asked where she wants to be in 10 years’ time, Councillor Thompson stated she has ‘‘a lot of’’ aspirations.

‘‘I want to be in a more senior leadership role like an MP, metro mayor, something in the political space,’’ says Thompson.

‘‘I also want to have authored a couple books by then focusing on subjects such as my life, my involvement in politics as a black woman, homelessness and more. I’m also mentoring some people myself and I want to see them get into various positions by then.’’

‘‘I just want to continue making a difference in peoples’ lives.’’

Rean Rehman

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