Last week, SCT, the homelessness and addictions charity I help run in East London, hosted one of its regular health M.O.T days. Over 100 people from across London showed up to receive vaccinations, check-ups, a new coat and some hot food.
All of these things are basic necessities. In one of the world’s richest country no-one should go without food, shelter or basic healthcare. And, yet, homelessness in the UK is a daily struggle against desperation, exploitation and prejudice, just to obtain the most basic of human rights.
A woman called Jane, sitting on the steps of St Leonard’s Church on Shoreditch High Street - seemingly oblivious to the rain drenching her clothes - admits to me that “the hardest thing is that no-one seems to care. Sometimes it’s like we are invisible”.
As I look round at the assembled crowd, it’s is hard for me to disagree with her. Since 2010 rough sleeping has risen every year - by 169% in total over the period (and even this is likely to be an underestimate). Other types of homelessness - people in (often appalling) temporary accommodation and those forced to couch surf - have also shot up.
This increase is not an inevitability. Nor is it the result of a wave of fecklessness or self-inflicted immoral behaviour. It is a direct result of government policy. We know this because in the preceding decade the Labour government managed to reduce homelessness significantly. Similarly, in other countries, such as Finland, a targeted programme of homelessness reduction has paid off. For them, ending homelessness is now a realistic goal.
Can I say the same to Jane about the UK? No, it would be a lie. I know it. She knows it. And, behind closed doors, in their most reflective moments, surely government ministers know it as well. Despite this, over the weekend, the government announced its intention to follow Finland’s lead with an aim to “end rough sleeping by 2027”.
As I watched this announcement on the news over the weekend, I thought maybe if I bump into Jane this week I can provide a more hopeful message. But, studying the government’s plans in more detail, that same feeling of guilt and anger begins to creep back in.
Compared to the action taken in Finland - and the scale of the problem in the UK - the policy interventions announced in the wake of the Government’s pronouncement, are uninspiring to say the least. £100m will be spent on treatment for mental health and substance misuse and some new housing facilities will be built outside of London.
There is no doubt that this is better than nothing. Given the deafening silence that has surrounded the rise in homelessness over the last decade perhaps we should be grateful that the Government is talking about it at all. But everyone in the sector knows that this latest plan isn’t likely to really address the problem.
Earlier in the summer the charity, Crisis, published it’s ‘plan to end homelessness’. They found that only by building 100,000 new social homes each year for the next 15 years - and fundamentally reforming the welfare system - will we really deliver the change needed. Compared to May’s £100m, they costed their plan at around £19bn between 2018 and 2041 (albeit delivering savings against this investment). This sounds more realistic.
The truth is that the Government’s plan is nothing more than a welcome, but ultimately expedient and short-sighted attempt to reduce numbers on the street ahead of the annual rough sleeper count later this year. In a superficial way, it will help to clean up some of the more obvious signs of the post-crisis rise in deprivation, but it will not really address the underlying causes of homelessness: a lack of social housing, significant cuts to the welfare system and a lack of support for people with the most complex needs.
As I walked into work this morning I thought again about what I’ll say to Jane if I see her. I guess I’ll have to repeat what I said to her last week, as I encouraged her to move in out of the rain: “Don’t worry. We care about you”. But, deep down I know that if SCT, and charities like ours, is societies response to homelessness, we will never fully succeed in eradicating it. Without bold national action, what we do as a charity will always be an attempt to mop up the mess of a broken system.
Solving homelessness is far from impossible. The work undertaken by Crisis shows us that. But it will take a lot more money, commitment and humanity than the Government is offering at the moment for us to achieve it.
This article is written in a personal capacity.