First published in Huffington Post
Courtney Cox and David Beckham have recently drawn attention to those sleeping rough (or at least to their part in drawing our attention to them). And rightly too. There were 1,768 people sleeping rough in England in autumn 2010. This more than doubled to 3,569 in 2015. Over that same period, says the National Audit Office, the funding available to support the homeless has nearly halved. According to homeless charity St Mungo’s, around half of rough sleepers suffer from mental health problems.
So the former Friends star on a recent visit to Manchester signed the sleeping bag of a man called Scott. Scott turned out to be an autograph hunter – he also had Pete Doherty’s – happily upending the usual victim narrative. According to a celebrity gossip piece, when Beckham, on a family visit to a gourmet burger bar in Chelsea, ‘handed the burger to the homeless man … the guy’s face lit up’. Judging by the accompanying photo this is because he also gave him his bottle of beer. Whether cynically playing to the cameras or just a kindly gesture (I’d like to think the latter), good on the former footballer turned clothes horse for giving the man something that moralisers would no doubt disapprove of.
But as anybody working in the housing sector will tell you, there is more to homelessness than the people you see out sleeping on the streets. As Shelter have highlighted, families are increasingly temporarily housed many miles away from where they lived prior to losing their homes – disrupting family, community and working life, and their kids’ education too. In 2010 5,330 households were temporarily housed ‘out of area’, more than tripling to 17,150 in 2015. Nine out of ten of these families are from London, half housed ‘out of area’ and half of these outside London, say the charity. The government insists that ‘councils have a legal duty to ensure that any temporary accommodation they offer is safe and suitable for the family concerned’. But the charity is sympathetic to local authorities’ predicament, recognising that they are ‘overstretched’ by an ever diminished housing stock and rising levels of need.
Spelthorne Borough Council in Surrey is to be commended for its imaginative response to the crisis. It has reportedly bought a hotel at a cost of £2 million to accommodate up to twenty ‘households’. It might sound a lot but it’s not a bad investment. Especially when you consider that the Council spent nearly half a million on providing temporary accommodation just last year. But it is an increasingly big ask of any one part of the system to solve the problem, not least because there is more than one housing crisis. ‘Homelessness’ is a multi-faceted phenomenon best understood as both part of, and yet bigger than, the wider housing problem. That wider problem being that there are not enough houses to go around. Added into the mix of rising rents, caps to and reforms of benefits (from the freezing of housing benefit to tougher sanctions on unemployment benefit) in a context of already falling living standards brought about by longstanding economic stagnation and recent economic crises; are the multiple and various crises that people experience at a personal level. (As St Mungo’s argue, what many living on the streets need more than anything is specialist mental health support and housing options when they’re discharged from hospital.)
And on top of all that is a political culture that has accommodated to lowered expectations (rather than accommodating people), while bringing into being a therapy state that, paradoxically, fails to target resources where they are most needed. And fails to generate the policy solutions needed to tackle any of the housing crises with which it is faced. With increasing numbers of single people on the streets and families living in temporary accommodation, and many, many more struggling to afford their rent or mortgage, policymakers urgently need to do both of those things.