The homelessness crisis demands radical solutions

A litany of failures in housing, health and the economy need to be addressed.

Dave Clements

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Topics Politics UK

The prime minister Boris Johnson has promised more funding to tackle homelessness. ‘It cannot be right in the 21st century that people are homeless or having to sleep on our streets’, he said.

The figures on homelessness are notoriously unreliable – not least because nobody can agree on what counts as homelessness in the first place – but they nevertheless paint a depressing picture. According to homelessness charity Crisis, sofa-surfing is the most common type of homelessness. In England in 2017, there were over 71,400 sofa-surfers who relied on friends and families to put them up. The number of households in England considered ‘officially’ homeless or at risk of being made homeless was 68,170 in 2019 – an increase of 11 per cent on 2018. The numbers in temporary accommodation – such as B&Bs or hostels – increased to 86,130, a rise of 4.5 per cent.

None of these figures include the 4,677 rough sleepers (over a quarter of them living on the streets of London) counted across the country on just one night last year – more than double the count in 2010. The annual figure is likely closer to 24,000 (around 9,000 of them in London), according to Crisis. Shelter put the total homelessness figure at 280,000 – the equivalent of one in every 200 people in England, and nearly one in 50 Londoners.

At this time of year there are many charitable initiatives to help those on the streets. Some have raised funds by taking to their rain-sodden tents in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff as part of the World’s Big Sleep Out, a celebrity-endorsed campaign of solidarity with the world’s homeless and displaced. A handful of volunteers in Wales have, on a smaller, more practical scale, converted a double-decker bus into a mobile night shelter complete with beds, showers and a kitchen.

The cultural set has also joined in. A video viewed over three million times on social media shows a homeless man asleep on a Birmingham bench being carried away by reindeer in a Banksy graffiti-piece. Gilbert and George are selling their artwork on dinner plates with proceeds going to East London shelters.

While these gestures in this season of goodwill are welcome, much needed and undeniably heart-warming, they are also depressingly inadequate. If it really is the case, as the prime minister says, that no family should be forced out of their home, and that nobody should have to live on the streets, then charity really shouldn’t be necessary. A long line of his predecessors – both in No10 and at City Hall – broke their promises to solve the problem. The current mayor, Sadiq Khan, invited 100 homeless people (or ‘vulnerable Londoners’, as he calls them) to City Hall on Christmas Eve. There was plenty of stuffing as they ate well and watched Elf, but not much meat on the bone: afterwards they all went back ‘home’ to their respective hostels.

As Shelter CEO Polly Neate puts it, ‘Our new government must confront and do something radical to change [the situation]’. So far the government has provided an additional £3million for this winter’s Cold Weather Fund. It will also make £63million of grant funding available for local authorities to support and accommodate rough sleepers. But while the money is needed – indeed, much more is needed – it is a rethink that is needed most. Labour leadership hopeful Keir Starmer has warned that homelessness is a ‘moral emergency’, citing projections that there could be 10,000 people sleeping on the streets by 2024 – ironically the date by which the Conservatives have pledged to end it altogether – unless there is a ‘cultural shift’ in the way the problem is understood. He is right.

Government needs to take homelessness much more seriously. In its narrowest sense, homelessness – as in literally having no roof over one’s head – could be ended almost overnight. People who are sleeping rough should be offered the money they need to find somewhere to live, to keep themselves clothed and fed, and to begin rebuilding their lives. We could do this by offering rough sleepers a personal budget, just as we already do for people assessed as having a social-care need. (Indeed, many people living rough or in shelters already have such needs, whether this is down to poor health, a disability, alcohol or drug problems, or being in an abusive relationship.) If the prime minister really does believe in people ‘taking control’ of their lives, he should give rough sleepers the opportunity to do so.

The causes of homelessness in its broadest sense are multiple and longstanding. But they are also avoidable. An undersupply of housing and stagnating living standards have caused rents and prices to spiral out of reach for many. An underfunded and mismanaged welfare system has failed to act as an effective safety net for those at risk of losing their homes. And mental-health services are unable to cope with the demands put upon them (not least thanks to today’s vogue for therapeutic solutions to social problems). Ultimately, homelessness is a product of the everyday instability that derives from our failure to tackle the UK’s structural economic problems.

But there could be cause for optimism. Tackling each and all of these issues requires the kind of 2020 vision you might expect of a new government with a large majority and an ambitious leader eager to get things (and not just Brexit) done.

Dave Clements is a writer, adviser to local government and founder of the Academy of Ideas Social Policy Forum.

Picture by: Getty

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Comments

Keith Lloyd

5th January 2020 at 9:52 pm

When we leave the EU I hope millions will return to their homelands, freeing up housing for those Britons who need it. I hope.

ZENOBIA PALMYRA

5th January 2020 at 3:02 pm

Kick out the current residents of Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and St James Palace. Those buildings are not currently being used for any discernible purpose and so would make ideal homes for the homeless.

Jerry Owen

6th January 2020 at 9:10 am

And how many people will those buildings house ?
Probably one of your most pathetic posts… Apart from the ones where you still cry over Brexit, although it has to be said I do still enjoy those !

Gerard Barry

4th January 2020 at 3:23 pm

I know others have said it but it needs to be reiterated: one of the main reasons – if not the main reason – for the related problems of homelessness and unaffordable rents is mass immigration. And this isn’t just in the UK – it’s the same in my native Ireland and in Germany, where I currently live.

Never before have more people been homeless in Ireland yet the issue of immigration is hardly every mentioned when the problem is being discussed, despite the fact that the country’s population has increased by 50% over the past 30 years. And it’s not like we haven’t built a lot of new houses and apartments in that space of time – we have. But when the population increases very quickly, it’s difficult for builders to keep up. And let’s be honest: constantly building new houses to keep up with an ever increasing population is hardly sustainable.

I hope that the UK’s homelessness problem might improve thanks to Brexit and the resulting decline in immigration from EU countries but that will depend on the British government not making up for this decrease by issuing work permits to huge numbers of people from all corners of the globe to make up for the fall-off in EU immigration. Will the British government do what’s right for society as a whole or will they kowtow to big business and it’s desire for cheap, already trained labour from overseas, thus adding fuel to the fire that is homeless and spiralling rents?

Keith Lloyd

5th January 2020 at 9:46 pm

Quite so. The article ignores this function of mass immigration. I remember my late father saying that it would lead to a shortage of housing, medical staff, teachers, etc. He castigated the governments of the time (forties, fifties, sixties, seventies…) for not foreseeing the problems it would cause to indigenous people in Britain. Now we and our descendants are left to remedy this catastrophe.

Gerard Barry

6th January 2020 at 1:24 pm

Our governments of course have the answer to this: if there is a shortage of houses or medical staff, you simply import more foreign construction workers, doctors and nurses:)

Immigration seems to beget more immigration: a rising population leads inevitably to a need for more doctors, nurses, tradesmen, you name it. It seems very hard to break the cycle – not that governments in Western countries make much effort to do so.

Marvin Jones

6th January 2020 at 3:50 pm

Gerard, immigration and migrants have become as unmentionable as the P word and the N word. Any time one listens to debates and discussions on the state of the NHS, housing shortage or the size of the welfare bill, you will never hear a word about migrants. BUT! you will hear about the elderly living longer. The massive numbers of migrants and foreign residency in this country effects every part of this country’s problems. “EVERY!”

Gerard Barry

6th January 2020 at 7:20 pm

Ditto in Ireland (where I’m from) and Germany (where I now live).

dave kidd

4th January 2020 at 9:26 am

You say ‘We could do this by offering rough sleepers a personal budget’, but experience shows that once offered this would become the norm for a much higher proportion of the population. What is really needed is far far more houses. The government should aim for a million new homes a year not just the meager 200 thousand which is nearly taken account of by net immigration alone.

Major Bonkers

4th January 2020 at 11:58 am

On the other hand, instead of increasing the supply of housing, you could reduce demand by, for example, reducing immigration (but you’d be accused of being a wascally wacist) and/ or encouraging marriage (but then you’d be accused of being a religious bigot).

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