The homelessness crisis demands radical solutions

The prime minister Boris Johnson has promised more funding to tackle homelessness. ‘It cannot be right in the 21st century that people are homeless or having to sleep on our streets’, he said.

The figures on homelessness are notoriously unreliable – not least because nobody can agree on what counts as homelessness in the first place – but they nevertheless paint a depressing picture. According to homelessness charity Crisis, sofa-surfing is the most common type of homelessness. In England in 2017, there were over 71,400 sofa-surfers who relied on friends and families to put them up. The number of households in England considered ‘officially’ homeless or at risk of being made homeless was 68,170 in 2019 – an increase of 11 per cent on 2018. The numbers in temporary accommodation – such as B&Bs or hostels – increased to 86,130, a rise of 4.5 per cent.

None of these figures include the 4,677 rough sleepers (over a quarter of them living on the streets of London) counted across the country on just one night last year – more than double the count in 2010. The annual figure is likely closer to 24,000 (around 9,000 of them in London), according to Crisis. Shelter put the total homelessness figure at 280,000 – the equivalent of one in every 200 people in England, and nearly one in 50 Londoners.

At this time of year there are many charitable initiatives to help those on the streets. Some have raised funds by taking to their rain-sodden tents in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff as part of the World’s Big Sleep Out, a celebrity-endorsed campaign of solidarity with the world’s homeless and displaced. A handful of volunteers in Wales have, on a smaller, more practical scale, converted a double-decker bus into a mobile night shelter complete with beds, showers and a kitchen.

The cultural set has also joined in. A video viewed over three million times on social media shows a homeless man asleep on a Birmingham bench being carried away by reindeer in a Banksy graffiti-piece. Gilbert and George are selling their artwork on dinner plates with proceeds going to East London shelters.

While these gestures in this season of goodwill are welcome, much needed and undeniably heart-warming, they are also depressingly inadequate. If it really is the case, as the prime minister says, that no family should be forced out of their home, and that nobody should have to live on the streets, then charity really shouldn’t be necessary. A long line of his predecessors – both in No10 and at City Hall – broke their promises to solve the problem. The current mayor, Sadiq Khan, invited 100 homeless people (or ‘vulnerable Londoners’, as he calls them) to City Hall on Christmas Eve. There was plenty of stuffing as they ate well and watched Elf, but not much meat on the bone: afterwards they all went back ‘home’ to their respective hostels.

As Shelter CEO Polly Neate puts it, ‘Our new government must confront and do something radical to change [the situation]’. So far the government has provided an additional £3million for this winter’s Cold Weather Fund. It will also make £63million of grant funding available for local authorities to support and accommodate rough sleepers. But while the money is needed – indeed, much more is needed – it is a rethink that is needed most. Labour leadership hopeful Keir Starmer has warned that homelessness is a ‘moral emergency’, citing projections that there could be 10,000 people sleeping on the streets by 2024 – ironically the date by which the Conservatives have pledged to end it altogether – unless there is a ‘cultural shift’ in the way the problem is understood. He is right.

Government needs to take homelessness much more seriously. In its narrowest sense, homelessness – as in literally having no roof over one’s head – could be ended almost overnight. People who are sleeping rough should be offered the money they need to find somewhere to live, to keep themselves clothed and fed, and to begin rebuilding their lives. We could do this by offering rough sleepers a personal budget, just as we already do for people assessed as having a social-care need. (Indeed, many people living rough or in shelters already have such needs, whether this is down to poor health, a disability, alcohol or drug problems, or being in an abusive relationship.) If the prime minister really does believe in people ‘taking control’ of their lives, he should give rough sleepers the opportunity to do so.

The causes of homelessness in its broadest sense are multiple and longstanding. But they are also avoidable. An undersupply of housing and stagnating living standards have caused rents and prices to spiral out of reach for many. An underfunded and mismanaged welfare system has failed to act as an effective safety net for those at risk of losing their homes. And mental-health services are unable to cope with the demands put upon them (not least thanks to today’s vogue for therapeutic solutions to social problems). Ultimately, homelessness is a product of the everyday instability that derives from our failure to tackle the UK’s structural economic problems.

But there could be cause for optimism. Tackling each and all of these issues requires the kind of 2020 vision you might expect of a new government with a large majority and an ambitious leader eager to get things (and not just Brexit) done.

First published in spiked

How to end homelessness

Until recently, homelessness would only come to public attention in the run-up to Christmas. But things are changing. Homelessness is now being openly discussed by politicians ‘after years in the policy wilderness’, says Patrick Butler at the Guardian. Politicians ‘seem almost to be trying to outdo each other’ with their schemes to tackle it, he says.

The Conservative government has pledged to halve rough sleeping by the end of this parliament, and to eliminate it by 2027. The Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force in April. It will impose new duties on local authorities – including to prevent and relieve homelessness for all ‘eligible applicants’, not just those deemed to be in priority need or ‘unintentionally homeless’. Housing First pilots have been announced to provide accommodation and wraparound support for the long-term homeless.

And yet the Rough Sleeping and Homelessness Reduction Taskforce, unveiled as part of last year’s autumn budget, has yet to meet. And some local authorities still stand accused of treating the homeless with contempt. Windsor council’s determination to clear the streets of homeless people before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in May caused controversy. The rise of ‘hostile architecture’ – with anti-homeless sprinklers, strategically placed bike racks and metal bars on park benches all making life even more uncomfortable for rough sleepers – has also, rightly, been met with hostility.

Then there was the recent death of a Portuguese man, a former model who had hit hard times and who was struggling with alcohol and mental-health problems. He had overstayed at one hostel and was awaiting admittance to another, but then he died while sleeping in the freezing cold outside Westminster Tube station – virtually on parliament’s doorstep. MPs took to social media. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that the ‘powerful can’t carry on walking by on the other side’; it is time we ‘took up the moral challenge and properly housed everyone’, he said.

Westminster is Britain’s main hotspot for rough sleeping (217 were counted on one night last autumn). The official figures suggest street homelessness has doubled since 2010; 4,751 people were sleeping rough in England in 2017. But this is widely understood to be an underestimate, relying as it does on local-authority counts and, more often, estimates. Nor does it include similar rises in the numbers of people living in temporary accommodation, or, more controversially, the ‘hidden homeless’. A recent ComRes survey found that 41 per cent of 16- to 25-year-olds admit to ‘sofa surfing’.

The failure to build enough housing, or enough affordable housing, is often cited as a major contributor to the problem of homelessness. In January, Corbyn announced that a Labour government would immediately, upon being elected, buy every homeless person in the UK a house, even if that meant seizing properties left empty by developers. And yet, for all its grandstanding, the political class has consistently undershot the building of the 250,000 new homes a year – at least – that Britain needs.

House-building in the UK peaked at 183,600 in 2007. It reached a low of 75,350 in 2009 and is now averaging around 150,000 a year. This has lead to a backlog of unmet needs, unfit housing stock, and ever-rising prices and rents – key contributors to today’s unprecedented levels of homelessness. The new legislation will help, but it is only by building the government’s target of 300,000 houses a year now, and not, as planned, by the mid-2020s, that we can begin to ensure that nobody need fear losing their home.

Many argue that it is central government’s programme of austerity, including cuts to local services and to benefits, especially for 16- to 18-year-olds, who are no longer eligible for housing benefit, that has created the current problem. There is certainly a need to address the problems associated with changes to the welfare system, albeit without further fostering a culture of extended adolescence among the young. But blaming the Tories is too easy. The crisis of affordability, of rising housing costs and stagnating incomes, is a longstanding one. It is this that motors the evictions that are the leading cause of homelessness. To solve this problem, we need less grandstanding and more serious investment in infrastructure.

First published in spiked

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.

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.