THE BLOG

The Secret State of Homelessness

29/05/2013 18:05 BST | Updated 28/07/2013 10:12 BST

For now, one of the few benefits to being David Cameron is that the coalition's homeless policy goes largely unchallenged. And as economic policy, European relations and tax havens take centre stage in parliament there is an irony here: Cameron's break in the clouds comes from the very people who are forced to sleep underneath them.

If there is one profound reality in UK homelessness it is that we as a country refuse to speak of it. And with the knives of austerity ready to take a swipe at almost anybody at any time, it does not take much guesswork to see why this trend in silence exists. Those who are not affected by it would rather not think about it, and those who are affected by it we would rather not think about. This unspoken 'alliance in silence' creates the drought in media exposure that fails to report on the work of charities enabling the perfect vacuum for the government to go politically unchallenged. It allows for the coalition to sweep the progress of homeless policy under the parliamentary rug and take with it the voiceless population who their policy is meant to protect.

Figures released this year by the Department for Councils and Local Government shows an upsurge by nearly 6% of people sleeping rough in the last thee years - it leapt from 2,181 in 2011 to 2,309 in 2012. Of course, these figures alone do not quantify the failure of the government's policy, however, this report focuses only on those sleeping rough and is not indicative of any real scale. The House of Commons Library report published in April this year, illustrates how many houses have been declared homeless and gives a broader, slightly more accurate picture: 'In the 2012 calendar year, the total number of acceptances (for houses declared homeless) was 53,450', writes author Wendy Wilson, a mark up of '10% from 48,510 in 2011'. Something must also be said for these figures, these are only the number of homes declared homeless, houses where the occupants have not kept up with mortgage repayments, rent and/or bills so go to their local council for help. Also, the report does not take into account the 650,000 ex offenders who are released from prison each year or those deinstitutionalised under the Mental Health Act, or those who have been 'moved on' under the government's 2012 anti-squatting legislation.

Due to the marginalised voice and transient nature of homeless people their exact numbers are impossible to obtain. This makes it easy for the Coalition to spin the issue into the long grass with by-lines like 'inherited legacy' and 'external economic pressures' and to sidestep any reproach as tactfully as it does the people their policies affect. This is Cameron's break in the clouds. To scrutinise homeless policy is to raise more questions about new policies like the introduction of the bedroom tax; the housing benefit cap at 'shared room rate'; slashed budgets in legal aid and charitable donations - all of which means those in private accommodation will not only struggle to make rent but will find it harder to acquire professional advice and monetary aid. With social housing in chronically short supply and their demand increasing, private landlords will perpetuate the problem by charging more, and all of this is augmented by a failing economy governed by ministers who put rigid ideology before people and austerity before charity.

It has not always been like this. From the mid-90's until 2010, following a collaborative effort by the government, the numbers of rough sleepers steadily declined. The total number of households in temporary accommodation in England in the first quarter of 2005 was over 100 thousand. The number published in 2010 was just under 50 thousand. The current rising numbers are not due to the failings of a previous government or external markets but the failings of current policy right here and now and right on our shores. The silence of homelessness must be broken. Labour must shriek so loudly that it pounds down the walls of the Commons and floods the pages of our newspapers and into our lives. And then, only then, will we be heard at the ballots.