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What happens when you have nowhere safe to stay?

19/08/2016 14:21 | Updated 19 August 2016

The Homelessness Reduction Bill could be a major step towards ending rough sleeping if it gets enough support from MPs. St Mungo's Policy, Public Affairs and Research Manager, Beatrice Orchard, explains.

There can be no doubt that sleeping rough is harmful and dangerous. Some people never recover, either dying on the street or being permanently affected by illness or traumas experienced while sleeping rough.

In a recent survey of people sleeping rough in Westminster, a third said they had been attacked or beaten up since they started rough sleeping. Four in ten people who sleep rough have mental health problems, which often develop while people are on the street.

I recently met a man who was training to be a chef while sleeping rough and had already completed one year at college, but for most people they can do little beyond just trying to survive. In the UK the average age of death of someone who dies while sleeping rough is just 47.

Despite the dangers involved, the law currently offers little protection for many facing street homelessness. Current homelessness statute in England effectively provides an 'all-or-nothing' approach where only households meeting restricted criteria qualify, leaving many with no help at all.

People who are homeless and who have nowhere safe to stay should not be turned away to sleep rough when they seek help from their council, but this happens too often when people don't meet the 'priority need' criteria for housing. In fact, in many areas, the only way people can get help is to go and sleep rough, placing them in immediate danger. This is extremely dangerous and surely unacceptable.

Short term emergency accommodation would help many people avoid the dangers of rough sleeping while they look for a longer term solution. This is why the Homelessness Reduction Bill includes a new duty on local authorities to provide emergency interim accommodation for people with nowhere safe to stay.

The Bill takes us a step closer to filling the gaps in the current legislation that leave too many without any meaningful assistance. Introduced by Conservative backbencher Bob Blackman MP as a private members bill, it has yet to be given explicit support from the government. However, today a cross-party select committee of MPs has urged the government to get behind the bill, saying that help people currently receive is 'unacceptably variable'.

The MPs on the communities and local government committee, noting increases in all forms of homelessness in recent years, have challenged the government to do more to contribute to the ending of homelessness. Funding initiatives are welcome, but are not enough to bring about the long term, systematic change needed. Instead, we have to get to a point where councils routinely provide emergency interim accommodation to people who come to them without anywhere safe to stay; anything less forces people to sleep on the streets and is unacceptable.

Councils are stretched and there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing to rent. Of course the change in law will require additional resources and, initially at least, the government should fund local authorities to bring about this step change. But the price of inaction is a very high cost to bear. Rough sleeping is extremely dangerous for the individuals affected, but picking up the pieces of damaged lives also generates significant costs for other public services, especially the NHS.

The next step for the Homelessness Reduction Bill will be its second reading in the House of Commons on 28 October. If it is to stand a chance of being made into law, MPs must turn up to the debate to support the bill.

Bob Blackman's bill is a real opportunity to stop people needlessly suffering on our streets. Please help by asking your MP to turn up to the second reading.

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