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Going Soft on Rough Sleepers?

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This is the time of year when homelessness - or, at least, sleeping rough - comes to public attention. Those charities concerned with getting people fed and sheltered who would otherwise be sat in doorways as the rest of us spend money we don't really have on seasonal goodies, do their best to tug at our heart strings. But perhaps they could engage with our intellects too?

The problem of sleeping rough is often presented - not altogether unreasonably - as distinct from the housing crisis. It is well documented that those propped up under a cash machine or outside a tube station tend to have a whole lot of non-housing problems. Whether its alcohol abuse, a history of offending, family breakdown, losing a job, mental illness or a childhood in the care system, there is often more to their predicament than can be attributed to a lack of housing. But despite the many problems experienced by the street homeless, campaigns like the government sponsored StreetLink and the mayor-backed No Second Night Out are, for all their good intentions, often based on degrading assumptions. That they go beyond simply providing people with the warmth and shelter they need for a night or two is no bad thing. If somebody does have a serious drink problem or isn't taking the medication they need then a well-judged professional intervention may be just what they need.

But the approach more often than not is more cynical than that. According to Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link, the role of charities like his is to put to a stop to "that cycle of drinking, drugs and antisocial behaviour" that puts people on the streets in the first place. Except it doesn't. This stock diagnosis in which the homeless are mere victims of 'cycles' beyond their control robs people of any capacity to change their lives for the better. It also justifies interventions that can only further undermine their prospects of getting off the street. That many have big problems is undeniable but their potential with a little help to deal with those problems is not as diminished as Henderson and others would presumably have it.

There is also a difficulty with focusing on the various problems that some - not all - homeless people tend to experience. While the problem cannot be understood only in relation to the wider housing problem, it cannot be separated from it either. Rough sleeping figures are notoriously questionable but reportedly last year the numbers went up by nearly a quarter and in London there are apparently 43% more people living on the streets than there were a year ago. This is particularly embarrasing for the mayor of London who in 2009 pledged to end street homelessness by 2012. As Dave Hill writes in the Guardian, if he really wanted to solve the homeless problem then he, and the rest of the political class, should have set out to solve the housing problem too.

They could do something to address the housing crisis if only they had the will to do so. Hill describes the scale of the problem, from "unattainable mortgages and bloated rents to the squatting, 'sofa-surfing' and surge in households placed in temporary accommodation now so apparent amid a shortage of affordable homes worthy of the name". Despite the 120,000 new homes promised in the chancellor's Autumn Statement, I fear we've heard it all before. As Mary Riddell points out in the Telegraph, for all the pro-building rhetoric deployed by successive Labour and now LibCon governments, it remains a fact that between 2001 and 2011 there was a 4% fall in house building. And this was from levels that were already hopelessly inadequate.

Instead of focusing its efforts on the 'vulnerable' margins none too effectively, the mayor and the government need to build - or else create the conditions whereby others build - more houses to meet the historically massive shortfall. This would not only meet basic needs and begin to match people's aspirations to own their own homes. It would also provide a much needed boost to the economy. And yet, somewhere between the paralysing cultures of sustainability and apolitical managerialism, the clarity of vision and unity of purpose needed to build enough houses for people to live in has failed to show itself. So yes, lets give our support to initiatives that respectfully give the street homeless all the help they need to get off the streets without undermining their ability to turn their own lives around by privileging their vulnerability. But lets also hope that in 2013 the political class take the longer and wider view on housing, and that they take a wrecking ball to the obstacles they themselves have erected to a rational solution to the housing problem.

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