First published in Huffington Post
I was speaking at a debate on homelessness a few weeks ago at the Battle of Ideas Festival (a wonderful event that I urge you all to go to next year by the way!). What was most striking for me was that there was little battle over the fact that it’s at least as bad as it’s ever been. Which is quite a thing when you consider the hook for the debate was the 50 year old groundbreaking docu-drama Cathy Come Home, that so shocked the nation that it gave rise to the campaigning charities Crisis and Shelter that are still with us today.
How could homelessness have got worse when we’ve otherwise become so much more affluent? What is causing today’s homelessness problem and what solutions are being put forward to solve it? In trying to answer that question I found as many difficulties with the proposed solutions as I did with the problem they were supposedly designed to solve.
Homelessness comes in many different forms: from rough sleeping, staying in hostels, shelters and temporary accommodation; to those officially recognised as ‘statutorily homeless’ by their local authority, as well as those ‘hidden’ in overcrowded housing, squatting, ‘sofa surfing’, sharing or sleeping on the night bus. In the space of five years the numbers deemed homeless have roughly doubled. Those living in temporary accommodation have risen by 40%. In 2015, 30% of those recorded as statutorily homeless were private tenants forced out of their home because they could no longer afford to pay the rent; and in the same year it is estimated that 2.3 million households contained ‘concealed’ single people.
The government plans to build 400,000 affordable homes by 2021 – half of them starter homes and 135,000 shared ownership. Most experts will tell you that we need to build at least 250,000 homes (‘affordable’ or not) every year. There has been wide support for the Homelessness Reduction Bill; not least from my co-panellist Daniel Dumoulin at St Mungo’s who was involved in its drafting, and from MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee. Recently voted through to the next stage in parliament, it will impose greater duties on local authorities to advise the homeless, (somehow) prevent homelessness happening in the first place, and to provide relief or emergency accommodation where necessary. All without building more houses.
The problem is, of course, that you can’t legislate against homelessness or force local authorities to provide stock that they don’t have. So what should be done instead? We need to build at least sufficient housing to break even i.e. to replace aged stock, and then more again to reflect the growing population and the changing shape of households. This isn’t a ‘luxury’, as my co-panellist Rebecca Wilson of the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness claimed. It is a necessity if we are to prevent further rises in homelessness, and if house prices and rents are to fall and become genuinely affordable. Policy-makers and campaigners need to stop accommodating to diminished expectations, and start accommodating people with the housing they need and want. That’s not to say that a bricks and mortar approach to the homelessness problem is going to be enough – as is clear from the mix of personal, socio-economic and policy determinants at play. There needs to be more targeting of more resources in more coordinated ways if the specific, complex and entrenched, needs of some homeless people are to be properly addressed.
We also need to stop expecting the homeless to play the vulnerability card. That would mean, for instance, abolishing the indignity of people having to prove that they are in ‘priority need’ and instead making common cause with them to demand more. I agree with Ken Loach, the man responsible for Cathy Come Home, who said in a recent interview: ‘People are not docile victims … they fight back’. He’s right, or at least he would be if he didn’t level this accusation at the Tory right alone – as my co-panellist, John Moss, chairman of an almshouses charity and Tory councillor, might agree.
Across the political spectrum the homeless tend to be treated as passive recipients, whether of abuse or pity. While bad housing and welfare policy are creating more homelessness, it is often the critics of these policies that are creating homeless victims. The left infantilise young adults, thinking 18-21 year olds are too vulnerable to have their benefits taken away, as will happen next year. And they think little of tenants too, campaigning against government policy that says they and not their landlord should receive their housing benefit. Our right wing government is, in this instance at least, doing the right thing by expecting tenants to pay their own rent. Apparently Loach is thinking of rejoining the Labour Party with the supposedly left-wing Corbyn in charge. If he knew this he’d surely think again?