Discussion with activists and politicians confirmed that there is nothing inevitable about this crisisby Eliza Slawther / September 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Rebekah was kicked out of her parents’ home when she was just 17.
“The bus station was the scariest place I stayed because there were a lot of people going in and out, and even at three, four in the morning there are a lot of people there… people you don’t know,” she recounted. “I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t have contact with anybody. It was really scary. I was really dehydrated and hungry. I would go into coffee shops to get water but I didn’t eat much during that time. I lost quite a lot of weight. People would come up to me and call me a tramp.”
Rebekah managed to receive help from the homeless charity Centrepoint, which supports young people who find themselves on the streets. Unfortunately, her story is becoming all too common. Rates of homelessness in the UK have long been on the rise—and that rise shows no sign of slowing.
According to a new Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, homelessness in the UK has increased by 134 per cent since the coalition came to power in 2010. According to data provided by Homeless Link, there were 4,134 people sleeping rough in the UK at any given time last year, although Crisis puts the number at around 9,100. Things are set to get worse still. From 2015 to 2016 the number of people sleeping rough on Britain’s streets increased by 16 per cent. These figures—already deeply concerning—likely underestimate the extent of the problem due to hidden homelessness: people forced to sleep on the sofa at a friend’s house, or living in squats or in other temporary, insecure accommodation. Crisis has estimated that up to 62 per cent of homeless people do not show up in these figures.
“I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t have contact with anybody. It was really scary”
There is a clear consensus that levels of homelessness are skyrocketing. What is less clear is the exact cause of the problem—and what can be done to reduce the number of people having to sleep rough. Matt Downie, Crisis’s Director of Policy and External Affairs, linked this increase in rough sleeping to “welfare reforms and a severe shortage of genuinely affordable housing.”
Tom Copley, London Assembly Member and patron of the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness agreed that this is an issue of the most pressing importance, and told me that “The causes of homelessness are a toxic combination of the housing affordability crisis and government cuts to social security, namely the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap.
“The single biggest cause of homelessness,” Copley said, “is the end of a private tenancy. This highlights the precarious nature of our private rented sector caused by lack of security of tenure and no restriction on the ability of landlords to push up rents to evict a tenant.” According to Copley, “We need the government to lift the LHA cap and free up local authorities to build large numbers of council homes again.” Only then will homelessness start to fall.
Teresa Pearce, a Labour MP who has often spoken out about the homelessness crisis, agreed that government welfare reforms are at the heart of the problem. “Under the government’s new Universal Credit, there will be a loss of Mortgage Interest benefit for homeowners which will force many out of their homes. Losing your job shouldn’t mean that you lose your home.”
Many of these comments are backed-up by that ONS report, which was scathing about welfare reforms and the lack of affordable housing.
But is all this talking past the biggest problem of all? It is often alleged that drink and drug abuse are the primary drivers of homelessness. Must any solution to the crisis look here first?
While addiction can ruin lives, it bears a relationship to homelessness that is correlative rather than causative. A representative for Crisis informed me that their research suggests drug and alcohol misuse does not directly cause homelessness in most cases. “It is true that some homeless people struggle with drug or alcohol problems, yet this is often a direct result of homelessness,” they explained. “Many people first become homeless at a very young age when they are particularly vulnerable. They may be escaping a violent home or other difficult circumstances. For some, the use of drugs and alcohol will be an attempt to cope with a horrifying situation.”
“Losing your job shouldn’t mean that you lose your home”
Many charities are keen to address health issues among the homeless. There is a clear humanitarian case for doing so, and treatment can make sure that they are fit to begin working and capable of supporting themselves. This is sensible. But it is simplistic to place the blame for skyrocketing homelessness with the homeless themselves. The spike innumbers since 2010 points in one direction: to Conservative policy-making.
If the welfare system is forcing people onto the streets, it is imperative that it be reformed. More affordable housing must be built, and extortionate rental costs must be brought down. More accessible support and advice services for those in need are essential. As Downie put it, “unless we take action as a society, homelessness is only going to get worse with every year that passes.”
Although the new Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is more detailed in its approach to tackling homelessness than much previous legislation, there are still clear gaps which many people will fall through, especially if they are deemed to be low-priority or found to have made themselves “intentionally homeless.” Many will still rely on the work done by independent charities in order to access the help they need.
“Everybody In” is Crisis’s campaign against homelessness. It centres around the notion that we all must take notice of homelessness, spread awareness and change attitudes. Similarly, Shelter and Centrepoint offer services which help countless numbers of people into housing. But homelessness is no longer a problem that can be swept under the carpet or left to volunteers and charities. We need more government action—fast. It has committed to investing more to tackle this crisis. We’ll see.