Homelessness: The Epidemic No One Wants To Talk About

Tonight, despite the freezing temperatures, as many as 2300 people will be sleeping rough in the streets. Thirteen years into the 21st century it’s both disturbing and shameful that we’ve wiped out smallpox and polio but not homelessness. The most vulnerable are the most visible. We all pass homeless people in the streets every day. Some people avert their eyes because they don’t want to see while others give a few coins or a cup of coffee to assuage their conscience. But homelessness isn’t just ‘rooflessness’. In a society where your home can shape your life and identity it has a legal and social dimension as important as the emotional one. And tens of thousands of individuals and families do not have a home of their own – instead they’re staying with friends and relatives or bundled into temporary accommodation.Certainly, there has been progress in the last decade but, much like a stubborn disease, it’s been spreading again in recent years – and only faster as of this month and the wave of government reforms and spending cuts taking effect. These measures include the welfare benefit cap and the infamous under-occupation penalty on housing benefit (aka the ‘bedroom tax’) which homeless charities claim directly threatens the homeless, even though they’re precisely the group these policies supposedly seek to help.

Under the Labour government considerable progress was made in reducing homelessness. A 1998 snapshot of rough sleepers in England found that around 1850 people were sleeping rough on one night; by 2002 that number was 585. This was accompanied by a major decline in statutory homelessness (i.e. those households unintentionally homeless and in priority need). However, the economic downturn and, in particular, house prices falling off a cliff meant that by 2010 all forms of homelessness began creeping upwards once more. By autumn 2012 the number of rough sleepers on any night in England had soared to over 2300 – a 31% rise within two years. Unsurprisingly, the problem in the capital is particularly acute – almost 5700 people slept rough in London throughout 2011/12 – a 43% increase on 2010/11. And in just the final three months of last year over 29,000 applications were made for help with homelessness, this time an annual increase of 6%. Worryingly, these trends largely don’t reflect the delayed effects of housing benefit and other cuts just being implemented now and which are likely to aggravate the situation.

It seems crazy that in one of the richest countries on the planet more cannot be done to ease the suffering of the very most defenceless and needy people in our society. Yet local councils, who have the primary responsibility for helping the homeless, are increasingly overwhelmed. At the moment they usually only agree to help the 4 in 10 cases where they’re obliged to (e.g. pregnant women, families with dependent children, adults assessed as vulnerable). Which means if you haven’t got kids and you don’t do drugs you’ll likely be turned away from a shelter. Councils are running out of social housing and the number of households forced to lodge in B&Bs has shot up by 25%. That includes almost 1700 families with children – those who most need the safety and security of a permanent home. Hence the reasoning behind the government’s ‘bedroom tax’ in order to free up space for more families in social housing. However, as ever with the Government of Unintended Consequences, this clumsy and heavy-handed policy will punish those most at risk of homelessness by making them more likely to be evicted. Social justice or not, the cold reality is that the lack of spare housing stock means there are few possibilities for households to downsize. Instead these families face average cuts of £728 even if they can’t find a realistic alternative. It would be far more sensible that this benefit cut only be applied to those households which are offered more appropriate accommodation but refuse it.

There are several other cuts which are going to bite hard too. The Supporting People fund played an important role in expanding homelessness services a decade ago. But in 2009 the ring-fencing was removed which enabled local authorities to siphon off these funds for local pet projects. Since then the funds have been cut significantly. This has meant that crucial services for homeless people, such as advice on debt and housing-related support, are vanishing just when they’re needed most. Concerns have also been raised about the national benefit cap on Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, less secure tenancies and moves towards market rents. These weaken the social housing sector and place most pressure on the groups such as young people, large low-income families and Londoners that are most likely to become homeless.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The Coalition has launched several measures targeting rough sleeping and preventing homelessness, including the relatively successful No Second Night Out initiative. But what is most enlightening is considering the differences with Scotland, where Holyrood controls policy in this area and a far more radical approach has been taken. All unintentionally homeless household are now entitled to settled housing. After an initial rise, homelessness applications have consistently declined, including a sharp 19% drop last year. Although underlying economic trends mean homelessness is likely to increase again, the success of this approach means it deserves much closer attention south of the border.

Indeed, more radical policy-making is needed in both the long and short term. The housing crisis may be old news, but the lack of affordable housing is the biggest structural factor pushing people into homelessness. Building 30,000 new homes is welcome, but only a start when there are already 53,000 families in temporary accommodation. In the short term the law should be changed so that every homeless person has the right to emergency accommodation. How can anyone facing a night on the streets not be a ‘priority’ case? There also need to be greater efforts to prevent people losing their homes in the first place, whether that’s by making LHA tenants more attractive to private landlords – by reducing red tape and ending the practice of paying rent in arrears – or by providing more opportunities for social enterprises which have already had notable successes.

Of course, all of these policies will require more funding at a time of austerity politics. Yet, despite the escalating rhetoric of the Left about rampaging ideological crusades crushing the poor, it is perfectly logical for the Coalition to take further action against homelessness. It destroys people’s skills and ability to improve themselves. What hope do you have of getting a job when you don’t even have an address to put on a CV? The homeless are not just another vested interest squealing when they feel the cuts. It may be good politics to bash scroungers with iPads but these are people who have nothing left but insecurity and fear for the future. They’re why we have a welfare state in the first place. If we abandon them now, what does it say about modern Britain? For all the ministerial speeches about promoting social justice and fairness, perhaps it’s time to prove it. After all, if we wiped out smallpox, we can certainly wipe out homelessness.