Homelessness and rough sleeping are on the rise. Photo: Maureen Barlin, Flickr
Heather Wheeler, the Minister for Homelessness, recently and extraordinarily declared that she didn’t know why numbers of homeless people and rough sleepers are skyrocketing across the country – claiming that housing benefit cuts and slashes to social welfare aren’t to blame. It bespeaks a determinedly attempt to dodge responsibility for housing policy which has put thousands of people in harms way, and many millions more struggling to make ends meet. It is testimony to our tendency to blame the homeless for their homelessness, as though it were a result not of institutional failings, but personal moral weakness.
We have a distinction between a good homeless person and a bad homeless person. The former is a troublemaker who deserves his or her fate – a drug addict, begging, gulling honest people out of money to fund their habits. The latter is an innocent unfortunate, punished by the system of Universal Credit, bedroom tax, inadequate housing and chaotic social services.
This distinction is a false one. It’s cover story for punitive measures set out to target the ‘bad homeless’ – but which simply shifts the blame for the housing crisis onto individuals, and away from the government and local bodies responsible. At the end of the day, both types of homeless people will be punished and humiliated by social institutions. These institutions will declare you a failure if your two or three jobs are not enough to put a deposit down to rent a flat – you must be not working hard enough to deserve basic dignity. Many people are just one paycheque away from being homeless – but if your zero hours contract job does not get renewed, it was probably your fault for slacking on the job.
Lately, the government may seem to have softened, with the new Homelessness Reduction Act mandating that councils help the growing numbers of homeless in their areas. This is certainly a step in the right direction, meaning that councils will no longer be able to wash their hands of people who were previously considered non-priority cases – such as single adults without children. Furthermore, prisons, hospitals and job centres will have a legal duty to people at risk of homelessness to councils. Some progress has been seen in Southwark, where it has been tested – but charity groups and activists have flagged concerns that without more funding, this will do little to alleviate widespread suffering.
Councils now have legal duty to assist homeless people – but they are given little in the way of practical support to carry that duty out. After years of austerity, institutions meant to provide a safety net have been steadily unravelled, and the HRA doesn’t present a way of stitching it back together. Furthermore, little is being done to combat the factors which make people homeless in the first place – namely benefit cuts and income insecurity combined with high housing costs. Martin Tett, the Local Government Association’s housing spokesman, commented that
: “Local authorities are currently having to house the equivalent of an average secondary school’s worth of homeless children every month. While they are doing all they can to help families facing homelessness, it’s essential that the new act’s duties on councils are fully funded.”
In the past eight years, homelessness
increased 34%, with 100,000 more families losing their homes compared with 2010. 120,000 children are living in temporary dwellings. The number of people housed by councils in temporary accommodation has soared since the Tories came to power – as of 2017, it had risen over 61%. The Morning Star reported that
“Local authorities accepted 14,600 households as statutorily homeless in the first three months of 2017, with a total of 77,240 families in temporary housing.”
This ‘solution’ which often sees families crammed into one room sharing bathroom and cooking facilities with strangers, for more than six weeks. It’s also technically illegal under the Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) Order 2003, which banned local authorities from housing families with children in B&Bs for more than a six-week period.
The numbers of people rough sleeping rose by 16% in 2016 to 4,134, the figure in 2010 was 1,768. Westminster has the largest number of homeless people in the UK, 7,794 people were living in temporary accommodation, and another 265 were sleeping rough, making a total of 8,059 people without a permanent home. Brighton and Hove have the second largest number of homeless people in the UK, in 2016, with 78 people were sleeping rough in Brighton and Hove, and a further 4,017 were living in temporary accommodation. One in 69 people in Brighton and Hove is homeless.
Meanwhile, Universal Credit credit rollout has put further pressure on people’s ability to meet basic housing costs. The effect of a 6+ week waiting period for a first Universal Credit payment can be severe, leading to foodbank referrals, debt, mental health issues, rent arrears and eviction. Areas of full Universal Credit rollout have seen a 16.85% average increase in food bank referrals for emergency assistance, more than double the national average of 6.64%. Furthermore, Universal Credit means that people are individually responsible for paying their rent – whereas beforehand, the government would usually pay housing benefit directly to landlords. When people are forced to choose between paying a landlord and feeding their kids, it’s little surprise that many Universal Credit claimants go into rent arrears
– particularly when payment is delayed.
Some councils are fighting back with hostile tactics to try and criminalise the homelessness, forcing them out of public spaces and off their consciousnesses. Brighton and Hove Council was considering the idea of implementing a Public Space Protection Orders proposal intended to give police and council officers the power to ban “anti-social” activities such as sleeping rough or begging. Hackney city council had a similar approach a couple of few ago where those who breached an order could be issued with a £100 fixed penalty notice or a fine of £1,000.
Now, those same councils are expected to magically find the resources necessary to plug a huge gap in social service funding. Really, it’s no more than a sleight of hand on the part of the government – attempting to feign tough action on homelessness, whilst ultimately making it someone else’s problem. This punitive approach is the final insult in a craven housing policy which seeks to privatise the effects of a public housing crisis. The priorities here are crystal clear: people’s right to housing is disposable, but the right to profit from housing is sacrosanct.