To tackle rough sleeping, we need to combat the root causes

The government's homelessness strategies are punitive and do nothing to help people in need, writes Joe Barson

August 23, 2018
8 min read

Photo by Maureen Barlin (Flickr)

Yet again, the government has seen fit to ‘tackle homelessness’ without addressing the root causes, or committing any more funding to combat the effects of austerity. This tactic is nothing new. As Karl Marx observed, from the 1500s, the state began regulating begging and destitution as the development of a capitalist economy resulted in people becoming impoverished. As peasants were forced off the land and into the towns there simply was not enough work for people to sustain themselves. People were ‘turned en masse into beggars… in most cases through the stress of circumstances.’ As capitalism developed, more people were forced to sell their labour to survive. And when there was no opportunity to work, people were forced into destitution.

The rise in destitute people led to a legislative response. Harsh penalties were employed against vagrants and those who begged as legislation assumed that the destitute were ‘“voluntary” criminals.’ Elderly people who could not work would get beggars licenses to demonstrate their need to beg. Non-licensed beggars were punished. The current government is taking a leaf out of this medieval playbook of non-solutions.

The government have revealed their ‘Rough Sleeper Strategy,’ pledging £100 million over the next two years as part of a wider initiative to end rough sleeping by 2027. This is not a plan to end homelessness – and it makes the clear differentiation between the homeless and those who are homeless and without shelter. The strategy is aimed at ensuring that in the world’s ninth richest country, people do not have to bare the indignity of sleeping outside.

The need for a Rough Sleeping strategy is clear. For the past seven years there has been a year on year rise in the numbers of people sleeping rough in the UK. 2017 alone saw a 15% rise. 

Within hours of its announcement, the immediate failings of the strategy began to reveal themselves. It transpired that the headline figure of £100 million was not a dedicated pot of new resources: it is composed of £50 million already committed to combating homelessness and a further £50 million of ‘redirected’ government funding. It appears that part of this redirected money will be to request that £30 million of the NHS budget be directed towards supporting homeless people. There is no explanation of where they expect this money will be redirected from, or what other service may suffer as a result.

Perhaps the most frustrating element of this announcement is the complete lack of acknowledgement that the government’s own austerity politics, have contributed to the growing crisis of homelessness. To those of us who have worked in homelessness services, this spike in rough sleeping is no surprise. Since 2010, savage cuts have battered the services that vulnerable people rely on for support; the state funded safety net for people most at risk of homelessness has been slashed.

In my first year of working with homeless people, two supported housing projects for young people were closed as a result of local authority cuts, increasing the demand for beds in the remaining hostels dramatically. This was followed swiftly by the Local Authority cutting the No Second Night Out funding which targeted people new to rough sleeping. The meagre resources now being redirected to rough sleeping will unlikely rectify the damage already done to services more widely.

The strategy acknowledges that those at risk of rough sleeping rely on robust mental health services, accepting the need for better support. However, it is not explained how this strategy will cover the real terms drop since 2012 in funding for mental health trusts. The actual mental health services needed have been consistently underfunded, leaving vulnerable people without the support they need to stay  healthy or prevent mental health crises. Working on the front line, I frequently encountered people with clear mental health needs who had been turned away from hospitals when seeking support. In one particularly awful case, a lady experiencing paranoid delusions was left wondering the streets with an untreated broken foot. Despite our attempts, it was only when she became an obvious danger to other people that she was finally admitted to a mental health ward.

The government’s acknowledges that the strongest predictor of rough sleeping is an experience of childhood poverty. Despite this, there is no conversation of how benefits reforms or the squeeze in wages are putting pressure on households and causing child poverty. To reduce rough sleeping, we need to tackle its root causes; enacting measures to combat the disgraceful rise in child poverty.

Combined with the critical deficit of social housing, rising rents and the roll-out of Universal Credit, it should be clear that the rise in rough sleeping is a symptom of the harsh cuts, aggravating underlying inequalities. Austerity politics has engineered a crisis of destitution in the UK; the small levels of funding redirected towards rough sleepers now is a weak response.

Criminalising poverty

The strategy also commits to a review of relevant legislation. While admitting that some of the laws that affect rough sleepers require updating, it praises other areas of the legislative webs that ensnare vulnerable people.

The main piece of legislation that the strategy refers to is the Vagrancy Act 1824, still in force in England despite having been repealed in Scotland. The act essentially criminalises rough sleeping, granting powers to enforcers to penalise those who sleep outside.  This legislation was highlighted by charities who have expressed distaste at local authorities currently using the act to sweep homeless people out of town centres. Rather than encouraging support, it encourages the treatment of destitute people as a social inconvenience. The government have pledged to review this legislation by 2020 but, tellingly, have not committed to repeal it.

Elsewhere, the strategy praises England’s Housing Act 1996 for offering a ‘strong safety net’ for vulnerable homeless people, and claims that the recent Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 is a progressive piece of legislation. 

However, the actual provisions of these acts tell a different story. The Housing Act stipulates that you must be in ‘priority need’  to be eligible for emergency accommodation. If you don’t have children, you need prove you have a condition which makes you more ‘vulnerable’ – but this is a moveable feast, and many people with severe physical or mental health needs aren’t prioritised. The Reduction Act is aimed at people who cannot show they are in priority need of accommodation under the Housing Act. It doesn’t guarantee accommodation, but requires that local authorities offer support for 56 days to homeless people to find housing. And if a local authority believes you became homeless ‘intentionally,’ their duties to help you are limited; if the applicant is not engaging fully with the support offered, their duty to help will cease. 

This legislation isn’t fit for purpose – either in principle or in practice. I watched local authority investigators use these acts to deny support to applicants; stretched authorities searched for reasons to prove intentionality or a lack of vulnerability to lessen their duties to support people. In one tragic case, I witnessed a local authority decide that someone with chronic depression was intentionally homeless. As they had missed an appointment and lost their claim to benefits, they were blamed for the arrears that led to their homelessness; the vulnerable applicant had been unable to prove that their anxiety led to a genuine fear of job centre appointments. The applicant had no support worker at the time to help with these issues.

Time to change our approach

The provisions around ‘priority need’ and ‘intentional homelessness’ rely on the myth that homelessness is a sign of personal failure; that ultimately, it is their fault through laziness, poor decisions or lack of moral fibre. We see this narrative at play when right wing politicians discuss benefits claimants as scroungers, as if they choose not to just nip out and get a job. Tackling homelessness means confronting the deeper reality: that in a capitalist society people slip through the cracks due to conditions out of their control – like class, education, employment, migration status, trauma, and a lack of social infrastructure to tackle their combined effects. 

Until we have a truly inclusive economy, geared towards providing meaningful work and opportunities to all, people will always be at risk of homelessness and rough sleeping. Any strategy aiming to prevent rough sleeping will fail if it does not recognise the fact that the nature of our society creates the conditions that cause exclusion and destitution.

We need to abandon this system of investigating homelessness and guarantee shelter as a right, regardless of a person’s circumstances. Without this change in ethos, schemes such as the Rough Sleeper strategy will lack the legislative framework to actually provide a solution to rough sleeping.

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