We know that homelessness ruins lives, yet 280,000 people in England are without a home this Christmas. That’s one in every 200 of our fellow citizens.
Despite all the government’s promises and strong words, our extensive review of official records shows that homelessness is increasing across the country. 23,000 more people are homeless today than in 2016 when we first published our landmark annual report. If this is not a clear sign that our housing crisis has become a national emergency, I don’t know what is.
Today’s almost complete lack of social homes plus cuts to housing benefit means homelessness really can happen to anyone. The people who come to our services are as diverse as you can imagine. Their lives have been dramatically different until now. But now, they are in desperate danger and the home they need in order to escape is simply not there. Bus drivers, office workers, mothers, fathers, and retirees. All it takes is an accident at work, a sudden rent rise or a relationship breakdown to throw someone into what feels like (and frankly, is) a bottomless pit from which they will find it difficult to escape. And I shudder to think about those we can’t reach directly, either on the phone, online or face to face.
“All it takes is an accident at work, a sudden rent rise or a relationship breakdown to throw someone into what feels like a bottomless pit”
On average two people die homeless every single day, and sadly many of those are people who sleep on our streets. But homelessness goes far beyond the horror of rough-sleeping. Hundreds of thousands of homeless people, including children, are hidden from public view in temporary accommodation: a room in a grotty B&B, a hostel bed or a tiny bedsit in a badly converted office block.
The young person delivering your takeaway tonight, the man on the checkout as you buy your weekly shop, the woman emptying your bins piled high with the remnants of Christmas cheer – any of them could be homeless and you wouldn’t know it.
Take Sarah, who works full-time as a housing officer for a council. She’s one of the homeless mothers our London service is helping to find a better and more secure home. The irony of her situation speaks volumes. Not only does she understand the housing crisis professionally, she now knows it personally too.
At Shelter we will always fight tooth and nail to limit the trauma that homelessness leaves in its wake. It is our job to help people rebuild their lives and to prevent others from losing their home in the first place. But we cannot do this alone. We are a charity that relies on public donations, and right now we need all the help we can get.
Sarah and her young son lost their home when her mother passed away and they were evicted. They had to move into an emergency hostel, where they were trapped for a year. There was no space, no privacy and cockroaches everywhere. One night, one of the residents, in desperate need and distress, tried to set themselves on fire. No family should have to live like this.
“Until the government takes responsibility for building the social homes we clearly need, our frontline services remain critical”
In the last year, someone called our emergency helpline every 44 seconds and our free web-chat service was used 26,000 times. In an era of austerity and spiralling private rents there is not much of a safety net left. People come to us when they have nowhere else to turn. So, until the government takes responsibility for building the social homes we clearly need, our frontline services remain critical.
Our advisers will continue to pick up the phone, our frontline workers will offer support, advice, advocacy and practical help, our legal team will continue to demand justice, and we will be relentless in our campaign to defend the right to a safe home. Shelter is open 365 days a year because the housing emergency does not stop, it doesn’t ease up for Christmas or take a break to welcome in the new year, so neither will we.
Polly Neate is CEO of Shelter. For information or to donate to Shelter’s urgent Christmas appeal, visit shelter.org.uk