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.
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.
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.
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.