Accommodating to Homelessness

As a society we have accommodated to homelessness. The homeless appear in the national consciousness once a year at Xmas. We associate the problem with cardboard boxes and the acts of kindly strangers, rather than seeing it as something that might be solved by better social policy. Not that I want to knock charitable feeling on the part of the public. Gloucester City Council has been running a much criticised poster campaign that urges people not to give rough sleepers any money because many of them are not really homeless. I don’t know about you but nothing makes me want to buy a rough sleeper a can of Special Brew more than being told not to by officialdom.

Frequently Asked Questions by Anthony Luvera and Gerald Mclaverty

There was outrage this month when Council Leader Simon Dudley asked the police to clear Windsor – prior to the eagerly anticipated Royal Wedding – of ‘an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy’ to ‘protect residents and tourists’. He suggested they use 19th Century vagrancy law and its latter day equivalent the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) to do the job. Russell Brand launched an online petition to ‘Show love to Harry and Meghan AND help the homeless’ by setting up a shelter in neighbouring Slough. It quickly attracted thousands of signatures, and Cllr Dudley is now facing a vote of no confidence.

But there is nothing unusual about the authorities harassing of the street homeless. Under pressure from campaign groups like the excellent Manifesto Club, local authorities and others using powers such as ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) and PSPOs (Public Space Protection Orders) have now been told by the Home Office that they must not ‘target specific groups or the most vulnerable in our communities’. I’m of the view that the homeless should be a public nuisance, that’s how we know we’ve got a problem.

But what is the problem? There is a rarely acknowledged conflation of homelessnesses. It tends to be exaggerated by campaigners to include ‘sofa surfing’ young people and the ‘hidden homeless’ living, albeit not ideally, in overcrowded homes. Equally it is underestimated by government – so that the official homeless count includes only families who are granted public housing after being assessed to be ‘unintentionally homeless’ by local authorities. When Theresa May, not unreasonably, made this distinctions there was outrage.

Frequently Asked Questions by Anthony Luvera and Gerald Mclaverty

Responding to Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, who claimed 2,500 children in her constitutency would ‘wake up homeless on Christmas day’, the prime minster rightly pointed out that this doesn’t mean that the streets of that South London district would be filled with homeless children. The constant reference to homeless children (Shelter claims a class-worth of children in every London school is homeless) is also cynically emotive. We need to deal in facts. These children are part of homeless households, not fending for themselves.

We need clarity if we are to find the solutions we need to end, or at least reduce, homelessness. But the figures, particularly for rough sleeping, are notoriously dodgy. According to Shelter about 9,000 people in England are sleeping rough on the streets, and another 9,000 on buses and in tents and cars. 78,000 households are living in temporary accommodation and there are around 300,000 homeless people across Britain. But if you look at the figures produced by local authorities (via headcounts and estimates), there were 4,134 people living on the streets in 2016, i.e. less than half the Shelter figure though still double that recorded in 2010. But whatever the correct figures are, behind the homelessness problem is longstanding multiple policy failure. From housing and welfare policy to mental health services things are going badly wrong and have been for some considerable time.

It is estimated that we need to build at least 250,000 homes a year (in the post-war period we were averaging 300,000). And yet we undershoot this by some margin year-on-year – house building in the UK peaked at 183,600 in 2007, reached a low of 75,350 in 2009 and is now averaging around 150,000 i.e. half of what the country needs. This is leading to a backlog of unmet demand, unfit housing stock and ever rising prices and rents. We don’t need to build affordable housing. We need to build so much housing that it becomes affordable.

But homelessness is not just a bricks and mortar problem. Mental health patients can find themselves homeless if they are discharged without the support they need. The number of homeless households categorised as a priority because of mental illness has gone up from 3,200 in 2010 to 5,470 in 2017. Homeless Link claims that 44% of homeless people have a diagnosed mental health problem. But, and this should cause us to doubt the robustness of mental health figures too, it also claims that 23% – nearly a quarter! – of the general population also have a mental health problem. So we have exaggeration here too.

A Soldier’s Story by David Tovey

According to Shelter eviction is the biggest single cause of homelessness at the moment. Welfare reform, the withdrawal of housing support, benefits freezes and benefits cuts are all widely understood to be having a considerable impact on people’s ability to afford to pay their rent. But it is also estimated that 70,000 young people (18-24 year olds) across Britain have claimed to be homeless in the past year. They are part of the ‘hidden homelessness’ problem, it is argued, made worse by their no longer being eligible for housing benefit. Here I have a problem: both with the suggestion that so many young people really have nowhere to go, and with the idea that the state should step in.

There has been a stark failure to build the housing we need. That must be tackled with some urgency until we are building well in excess of a quarter of a million homes a year. We also need to ensure that care and support is targeted at those who most need it; and that our sprawling, complex and clunky welfare system is up to the job of helping people when they need it without nannying young people into an extended state of adolescence.

If we are to address the problems that underlie the recent rises in homelessness, we need to be able to have frank debates about the welfare system and attitudes to the young, while recognising the complexity of the problem and the multitude of individual circumstances that can lead to the experience of homelessness, and without this becoming an excuse for inaction or a lack of ambition. Trying to address the growing issue of homelessness is difficult but it needn’t be intractable.

This is the text of my contribution to Rough Justice: A Public Discussion organised by Liverpool Salon with the Museum of Homelessness, at Tate Liverpool on 23 January as part of State of the Nation: Exchanges on Homelessness.

The Lonely State

Over the summer, we were treated to ‘the biggest neighbourhood celebrations since the Jubilee street parties’. The organisers eagerly ‘inviting people to get together with their neighbours’ and attend a ‘street party or a shared barbecue, a picnic or a bake off’. But this time around we were urged, all too pointedly, to ‘celebrate all that we hold in common’. ‘Inspired’ by the murder of MP Jo Cox, the feel-good factor was notable by its absence; and in its place were some darker assumptions about the divided, nastier society the organisers imagined we have become.

One of the four areas of work undertaken by the recently established Jo Cox Foundation is to address what it describes as the ‘growing crisis of loneliness’. ‘It can affect people of all ages and from all backgrounds – from the bullied school child, to the new mother, to the pensioner who has outlived her friends and immediate family’, we are informed. The Foundation wants to ‘try to get people talking at all levels’ whether it’s ‘chatting to a neighbour, visiting an old friend, or just making time for the people they meet’. And, ironically enough, the Foundation is not on its own with this initiative. Loneliness is all the rage.

Until quite recently, unfashionable charities organised befriending initiatives for older people left behind by family or deceased partners, or house-bound by disability. But today the category of ‘the lonely’ has widened. Whether it’s social media isolating rather than connecting the young, and intensifying a (quite literal) status-envy; or the plight of relatively young singletons living on their own out of choice or lone-parents with only screaming children for company; or even those leaving behind those elderly relatives to immerse themselves in study or work, and consequently experiencing loneliness themselves.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, has generated a number of alarm-filled headlines recently. She was presenting to the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, what one commentator described as the ‘biggest ever review into the problem’. She described not only an increase in loneliness in the U.S., but also concluded from a number of large scale international studies, that social isolation, loneliness and living alone are leading to premature death around the world. Its impact is worse than obesity, she said. Not only does Holt-Lunstad say we have a big disease-like problem. She also claims that if only certain interventions were made, ‘social connectedness’ could flourish and lives could be saved: whether by training kids in social skills at school or getting GPs to screen their patients for signs of loneliness.

It is this diseasing of loneliness – both in the way it is described and the impact on people’s health it supposedly has; and the exaggeration of its extent that is most striking today. It triggers a stress hormone, increasing blood-clotting ‘in anticipation of injury’ raising blood-pressure and clogging up arteries, says one researcher. It can ‘dampen a person’s immune system’, says another. It causes depression, says one campaigner; and cancer, insists another. So, as if being lonely isn’t bad enough, it also has (if we are to believe what we are told) quite literally deadly implications.

According to a Leader in New Scientist, ‘Curing loneliness might just be the most cost effective public health intervention available’. In truth, we can’t ‘cure loneliness’ anymore than we can cure sadness (whatever the pretences of advocates of the happiness agenda). And we shouldn’t try to either. Indeed there is much to recommend the explanation which says social isolation can mean people’s deterioration in health goes unnoticed. It is also the case, despite what campaigners say, that the old and already unwell are still the most likely to experience loneliness. Still, there are a lot of lonely people out there. The question, as Paul McCartney sang, is: ‘Where do they all come from?’

It is not altogether a surprise to discover that loneliness is a big problem today. The progressive decline of social institutions over a period of decades is well known: from the family to the pub, the trade union to the working men’s club. In the absence of those institutions, the individual increasingly stands alone, turned in on themselves, albeit deemed vulnerable and ‘at risk’ and looking to the state or experts for ‘support’ and protection. But there is nothing inevitable about the way being with others has been turned into an ordeal of etiquettes and hazards as is increasingly the case: from gaining consent on campus and avoiding commitment in relationships to anxiously keeping the kids away from strangers.

Feeling lonely is normal. It is not a disease. You can’t teach children how not to be lonely. It is a feature of our interior lives, it is intangible and subjective. And it is not particularly receptive to policy interventions however well meaning. But, while we can’t solve the problem of loneliness as such, we can do something to make our communities feel less isolating and less conducive to feelings of loneliness. The state can play a positive role in sometimes quite literally bringing people closer together – improving transport and communications and making it more affordable for people to get around. But the obsession with congestion charges and cycle paths over building more roads and airports, and with the supposed dangers of surfing the internet over improving dodgy wifi connections; shows how little interest policy-makers have in genuinely bringing people closer together on a scale that would make any real difference.

But it would be better, in other areas, if the state could do a lot less. It could stop the unnecessary checks on volunteers and care workers that can put people off helping others and stoke anxieties about abuse. It could revoke the illiberal powers it has granted local busybodies that so contribute to the inhibiting of public life – from confiscating alcohol to banning skateboarding, from banishing buskers to demonising smokers. For here too, far from fostering a social environment that frees us up and connects us with each other, the political class’s enthusiasm for regulating people’s everyday lives and relationships only helps isolate and alienate us further.

The obsession with loneliness has not just sprung from nowhere. There has been a therapeutic turn in policy-making and in society more broadly; and, post-Brexit, a uncomprehending elite reaction to a society they imagine to be somehow less friendly than it was a year or so ago. Instead of delivering concrete policy interventions to solve discrete social problems we have initiatives that will supposedly make people feel better about themselves, improve their ‘wellbeing’ and encourage some fellow-feeling. The political class projecting their own alienation and dark thoughts about what we’re like onto us, and already consumed by anxieties about their own isolation and disconnectedness, have little interest in building infrastructure or in letting go their grip on people’s everyday lives. The truth is they just can’t leave us alone.

First Published in Huffington Post

Homelessness – Bricks and Mortar and More Besides

First published in Huffington Post

The complexity of the homelessness problem is undeniable and its causes are multiple: families evicted from their homes into B&Bs, people falling foul of the benefits system, or on the run from an abusive partner; youngsters leaving the care system, or people discharged from mental health wards or thrown out of their asylum accommodation on being granted refugee status. These are just some of the reasons people find themselves homeless. According to former shadow housing minister John Healey, nearly 80,000 families in England could be made homeless by 2020. In Scotland nearly 30,000 households were made homeless last year. In Northern Ireland 20,000 households are affected.

While building enough houses for people to live in really is something we should have mastered by now, the homeless problem has always been about more than just bricks and mortar. Difficulties in people’s lives that cause them to become homeless may have nothing to do with the wider housing problem as such, except in the sense that as a consequence of those difficulties they have nowhere to live. It is their non-housing related circumstances, in other words, that have brought them to a housing crisis.

Nevertheless, if they are to find somewhere to live we need to get beyond the current housing policy impasse. It is still dominated by a late Cold War era battle of the tenures. The left argue for social housing as the best way to accommodate the poor and needy; and the right call for the sale of those state-owned properties in favour of increasing home ownership. Nobody much likes the private rental sector – ironically enough given that it’s what most people live in. According to PwC, in 2000 60% of Londoners owned (or at least the bank owned) their own home. This is projected to fall to 40% by 2025 if current trends continue. But both policies and their associated visions – of a council house for life vs. the home-owning democracy – have failed. Instead we have impossibly lengthy waiting lists to a run-down and residualised stock; and impossibly high house prices (and spiralling rents) that increasingly few can afford.

And so we are left with posturing and tinkering at the edges. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee has produced a report concluding that the homeless are ‘badly treated’ by local authorities who – they argue – should have a legal duty imposed upon them to support and advise those looking for somewhere to live. Likewise, John Healey argues that there is a need to ‘strengthen the law to help prevent homelessness happening in the first place, as Labour has done in Wales’. Which may sound reasonable, but local authorities rightly respond that they don’t have the resources or the powers to do this anymore. You can’t legislate against homelessness by forcing councils to provide stock that they don’t have and can’t build. Inevitably what’s left is highly undesirable.

Homeless charities and others call for a ‘strong housing safety net’ and ‘preventative help’, which sounds fair enough. But it won’t solve the problem; it will only provide a temporary buffer for those at risk of losing their homes. Likewise the mantra that we need more affordable housing can hardly be objected to; but it is pretty meaningless in today’s hyper-inflated housing market. Building more houses and lots of them is our best chance of solving the affordability problem – and that should be done across the tenures. Otherwise all that is left for the state to do is interfere in people’s personal lives – something it won’t hesitate to do. There is a lot to recommend ‘sustaining’ people in their homes, helping them with their rent or brokering their relationship with their landlords. But why stop at people’s relationships with their landlords? One reason people become homeless is because of problems in their relationships with each other. The official figures show that sharing and marital breakdown is the single biggest cause of homelessness in Northern Ireland. Surely it’s not housing these people need, its relationship advice? So the logic goes.

No. Instead of tinkering and meddling we need bold policy. We should free developers from the unnecessary constraints imposed by planning law, and free-up planners to plan more and better housing. Local Authorities and Housing Associations should be encouraged to build instead of their stock being diminished by a state imposed ‘right to buy’; and the local state (with its PSPOs) should get off the backs of the homeless too. So let’s loosen the constraints and target resources where they are most badly needed. That way we might both get more houses built and start to address the difficulties faced by those in desperate need.