The homelessness crisis in England: a perfect storm

A homeless man on The Strand, London.
Last year, 112,070 people declared themselves homeless in England – a 26% increase in four years. At the same time, the number of people sleeping rough in London grew by 75% to a staggering 6,437. Why? A £7bn cut in housing benefit, welfare reforms and a huge lack of affordable housing

Jon Henley The Guardian,

A homeless man on The Strand, London. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian

There was a time not so long ago – 10 years, even five – when it seemed quite reasonable for workers in the homelessness sector to suggest that the end of rough sleeping was in sight. So realistic an objective was it, in fact, that all the leading candidates in London’s mayoral elections of 2008 pledged to achieve it before they left office.

Nobody talks in those terms now. Tomorrow, the Combined Homeless and Information Network (Chain), a database compiled by those who work with rough sleepers and the street population in the capital, publishes its annual report, the most detailed and comprehensive source of information available on those seen sleeping rough by outreach teams in 2013-14.

The report is almost certain to show another significant increase, says Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people – continuing an alarming upward trend that has, over the past four years, seen the number of people sleeping rough on London’s streets at some point in the year swell by 75%, to 6,437 in 2012-13.

The evidence certainly seems to point that way: in its most recent quarterly report, published in early April this year, Chain reported that, compared with the same period in 2011-12, the total number of people sleeping rough in the capital had risen by 8%, new rough sleepers by 12%, and intermittent rough sleepers had increased by 11%.

Nor is the phenomenon confined to the capital. The government’s Department for Communities and Local Government estimated that across England, 2,414 people slept rough on any one night last year, a rise of 36% since 2010 (and, because the estimate is based on single-night street snapshots, most likely a fraction of the actual total).

A homeless person in central London. A homeless person in central London. Photograph: Jonathan Brady And rough sleepers are, themselves, a small fraction of the total homeless population. Local councils have a statutory duty to house some – such as pregnant women, parents with dependent children and people considered, for a variety of reasons, vulnerable (single people rarely qualify). Last year, 112,070 people in England approached their council as homeless, a 26% increase on the figure four years ago.

Beyond these are tens of thousands of single homeless people in hostels – there are currently just fewer than 40,000 hostel beds in England, a figure that has fallen by around 10% in four years due to spending cuts – and countless thousands more who make up what is known as the “hidden homeless”: people existing, more or less out of sight, in B&Bs, squats, or on the floors and sofas of friends and family members.

No one knows exactly how many hidden homeless there are, but the Homelessness Monitor, an exhaustive, ongoing five-year study by housing policy academics from Heriot-Watt and York universities, has found evidence to suggest that one in 10 adults has experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, a fifth of them during the past five years. “We are witnessing,” says Morphy, “what amounts to a perfect storm: a combination of the shortage of affordable housing and government policies – welfare reforms and cuts in housing benefit – that are weakening the housing safety net for those who are in greatest need. It’s a grim picture, and it will get worse before it gets better.”

Until really quite recently, though, the picture wasn’t that grim at all. Rising steeply from a postwar low of just six people found sleeping on London’s streets in 1949, homelessness first crossed the national consciousness as a serious concern in the mid-60s, when Ken Loach’s gritty, still-potent BBC TV drama Cathy Come Home – watched, on first broadcast, by fully a quarter of the UK population – brought its realities forcefully home to a shocked nation.

Three of Britain’s leading present-day homelessness campaign groups – Crisis, Shelter and Centrepoint – were formed within a year of Loach’s film airing on the BBC, and Britain’s earliest homeless persons legislation, the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, came into force in 1977, giving some housing rights to certain categories of people for the first time.

By the 1980s and into the early 1990s, however, homelessness was again becoming an issue. A range of factors – house-price inflation, rising unemployment, a more general increase in the number of people with drink, drug and mental health problems, a ban on 16- and 17-year-olds claiming housing benefits – saw rough sleeping, most visibly in London’s notorious “cardboard cities”, on the increase once more.

An eastern European man sleeps rough under a flyover on the A13 near Canning Town. An eastern European man sleeps rough under a flyover on the A13 near Canning Town. Photograph: Teri Pengilley But the result back then, says Katharine Sacks-Jones, head of policy and campaigns at Crisis, was “a concerted series of programmes, government-funded, government-led”, to address the problem. Housing was earmarked, health and employment support increased, the Rough Sleepers and Homeless Mentally Ill initiatives launched to fund more beds and more services. A project called Places of Change replaced older dormitories with smaller, more supportive, single-room hostels.

“There was recognition, for the first time,” Sacks-Jones says, “that a roof was important, but not enough on its own – and a gradual shift to a more preventative model. A lot of very real progress was made, particularly on rough sleeping. Numbers fell significantly, and then stayed flat, until … well, until this recession hit.”

The turning point, Sacks-Jones says, was 2010. “That’s when all forms of homelessness started to rise; when you got this toxic mix of unemployment, underemployment – people struggling on low incomes – and housing unaffordability, plus benefit reforms effectively breaking the housing safety net that has, until now, been a key part of the welfare state.”

What tips a person into homelessness? Besides structural, society-wide causes – lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, the the benefits system – individuals fall into homelessness for complex and usually overlapping reasons, often after an accumulation of events.

Most men, according to Crisis research, cite relationship breakdown, substance misuse, and leaving an institution such as care, prison or hospital. Single women, who represent about a quarter of the clients of homelessness services, are more likely to find themselves homeless as a result of physical or mental illness, or after fleeing violent relationships.

Some categories of people are more likely than others to be affected. Migrants, for example, may lack support networks of friends and family, familiarity with English and knowledge of how the benefits system works, and are vulnerable: people from the east European accession states – including Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – make up nearly 30% of London’s rough sleepers.

Young adults, similarly, are at greater risk: the number sleeping rough in London has more than doubled in three years; 8% of 16- to 24-year-olds report having been recently homeless. Two-thirds of homeless people say alcohol or drug misuse contributed to their situation; nearly 60% have been unemployed for three or more years; 37% have no formal educational or professional qualifications; a quarter have been in local authority care; nearly as many in prison.

Whatever their individual circumstances, lack of affordable housing constitutes one half of the homelessness equation. Underscoring that reality, the single biggest cause of statutory homelessness in London – that is, homelessness recognised by a local authority and eligible for housing – is now the ending of a private tenancy.

Housing is, famously, an issue that successive governments have failed to address, and although Morphy reckons the solution is “really not that complicated”, it will clearly take “a brave government, and planning that looks beyond a five-year government term” to tackle Britain’s decades-long, ever-widening gap between housing supply and demand.

The controversial anti-homeless spikes outside Tesco on Regent Street, now removed. The controversial anti-homeless spikes outside Tesco on Regent Street, now removed. Photograph: Guy Corbishley But the situation right now is particularly acute. In the recession of the early 90s, Morphy notes, homelessness actually fell – because while the number of repossessions was high, housing costs subsequently fell, and access to social housing was freed up. This one is very different.

“We’re in a completely different economic situation,” she says. “House prices, certainly in the south of England, have not fallen. A lot of people who would not normally be housed in the private rental sector are in there now. So there’s less and less availability – and, of course, a very significant shortage of social, affordable and stable housing.”

Not surprisingly, then, with owner-occupation out of reach for people on low incomes and social housing out of bounds for most without dependent children, last year, for the first time in very many years, the private rented sector accounted for more UK households than the social rented sector: 18% against 17%.

And the problem with that, Morphy says, is that the private rental sector is “a market, with the people who need our services most at the bottom. It needs far, far more regulation – local authorities can now fulfil their duty to homeless people by rehousing them in the private rented sector, with none of the security of a long-term social tenancy.”

The 2011 Localism Act, which allowed this move towards less secure tenancies and rents closer to market values, is not the only piece of recent government lawmaking that Crisis and other homelessness campaigners object to. The Welfare Reform Act and its secondary legislation, says Sacks-Jones, has “massively restricted the support people can get with housing”.

Overall, housing benefit has been slashed by £7bn, Crisis says. Leaving aside the bedroom tax, which affects social housing, the Local Housing Allowance – a form of housing benefit – has also been cut: claimants under the age of 35 now mostly get a lower rate, the Shared Accommodation Rate, which will pay only enough for a room in a shared property.

That’s highly problematic, Sacks-Jones says, first because there is not a great deal of shared accommodation available – our housing market isn’t built that way – and second, because shared accommodation is, in any event, only rarely suitable for particularly vulnerable people.

Add to that swingeing cuts in council tax benefits, caps on Local Housing Allowance rates, and restrictions on the Social Fund, which previously helped homeless people to stump up rent in advance, or pay for a bed, fridge and other essentials, and the picture gets tougher still.

The other half of this toxic homelessness equation, then, is welfare reforms (or, depending where you stand, cuts). Both Sacks-Jones and Morphy are at pains to point out that Crisis does not oppose the government’s stated aim of simplifying welfare and making sure that it pays to work. But it and other campaigners have serious reservations about the implications for homelessness.

“The problem with universal credit,” says Morphy, “and particularly the housing element, is that it may be fine for most of the population, but it isn’t for the rest, those who need far more careful calibration. And cuts aren’t just affecting individuals, they’re hitting homelessness services – over half have now seen their budget cut.” As a result, says Sacks-Jones, “everything but the basics is now getting cut back. Lots of specialist ancillary services are going: a hostel may stay open, but it’ll lose its employment worker, or its mental- health consultant.”

Needless to say, for those who find themselves homeless, the experience can be isolating, destructive, devastating. Up to 70% of homeless people have some form of mental-health problem – as a cause of their situation, a consequence, or sometimes both – and two-thirds have physical health problems such as bronchial and wound infections, exacerbated by the fact that homeless people are around 40 times less likely than the rest of the population to see a doctor. The average age of death for a homeless person is just 47.

So what does the future hold? Morphy, while worried by recent evidence – in the British Social Attitudes survey, for instance – of hardening attitudes towards benefits claimants and particularly concerned about the fate awaiting the under 25s, who could soon be deprived of many of the benefits previously available to them even under a Labour government, remains convinced the solution to homelessness “is not rocket science. We need to think longer-term, allocate resources more effectively, and pick up earlier on people in difficulty.”

Sacks-Jones is somewhat less optimistic. “It will depend what happens with welfare,” she says, “and attitudes are toughening, across the board. That will be a huge factor. And with housing … Someone is going to have to bite the bullet on housing, and things might now be getting to the point where it becomes a voting issue. But speaking honestly? It’s not a pretty picture.”

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