Shocking figures this week tell us that the government estimate around 5,000 people are sleeping rough, up nearly 100% since 2010. The figures are likely to be much greater given that they do not account for those people who are sofa surfing, living in tents or cars, or simply riding public transport through the night. Today, we wake to hear that 597 rough sleepers died in 2017, up 24% over the last five years.
The government are steadfast in the view that it is not policies around welfare benefits that has caused the rise. I would agree with this: it is not the introduction of universal credit alone, rather a whole plethora of government policy that has created this perfect storm. A storm where, according to a UN report, we find that 14million people live in poverty in Britain.
So what are these policies?
A change to the benefit system – called ‘universal credit’, it scraps the various benefits (jobseekers, housing benefit etc.), giving claimants one payment that factors in all elements. On face value it appears a sensible task in simplification, however the scheme has left many people facing poverty: payments have been delayed and the amount that many are receiving has been greatly reduced, leading to debt and non-payment of rent. It seems no coincidence that The Trussell Trust, which operates over 400 food banks, has reported a rise in demand where the changes to the benefit system have taken effect.
Lack of investment in social housing – funding has been reduced over recent years, meaning that housing associations have significantly reduced the amount of properties they build. Where they are building new homes, these are more likely to be shared ownership properties (where the housing association owns part of the property and the tenant the other), which many cannot afford. This is not about bosses getting richer, these properties bring in more income which in turn helps the housing association to subsidise the loss of funding and sustain any social housing properties they do have.
The “right to buy” – around since the 1980s, the right to buy policy allows tenants to buy their council homes at significant discount. This is a policy that the Conservative government continue to drive. Since 2012, over 70,000 Council properties have been sold, with only around 20,000 new ones being built. That means there are 50,000 less social housing properties available for low income families. It is no surprise therefore that the Chartered Institute of Housing are calling for a freeze to this policy.
Low security in private rented properties – if you are a tenant of a private rented property you have little security. After an initial fixed period, your landlord can evict you easily, without having to prove a reason why. This means that good tenants are being evicted from private rented properties, sometimes because the landlord has not fulfilled their duties and they are trying to cover this up. The tenant is then faced with trying to secure social housing (extremely difficult unless they have a priority need, given the low numbers), or secure another private rented property. With the latter they will need a deposit and many landlords are refusing to take tenants whose rent is paid by benefits.
Decrease in funding to support services – in the government’s defence to the argument that changes to the benefit system has caused the issues with rough sleeping and poverty, they claim that it is other factors, such as drugs and family breakdown. It cannot be disputed that this is a factor: over half of the 600 deaths have been attributed to substance misuse and suicide. The sad fact however is that significant reductions to Council funding has meant that investment in support services has reduced massively. Drug and alcohol services have been cut, parenting support and mediation has been reduced and mental health is heavily under-resourced. People are simply not getting the right support at the right time.
Lower numbers of police officers – huge budget cuts to police forces have, understandably, meant that crimes have to be prioritised. The focus is now on serious and violent crime. This means that issues such as anti-social behaviour are sliding down the priority list. Unfortunately this means that some housing estates are being blighted by ASB and low-level crime again. Where it is not nipped in the bud, it is likely to escalate to the type of serious behaviour that leads to people being evicted. In addition, victims will intentionally make themselves homeless, solely because they cannot face on-going issues that are not being addressed.
So, what is the solution? We see from the above that the situation is complex, with a whole range of policy decisions and social issues involved. We are also dealing with human beings, each with their own set of needs, desires and motivations.
However, there are some broad principles that would improve the overall picture. First, we must invest in genuinely affordable housing, giving housing associations the funding required to build more properties let at a social rent.
The government must review the right to buy scheme and ensure that, where properties are sold, there is a genuine and realistic commitment to replacement, and increase funding in support services, ensuring that when people hit a difficult period in their life, there is appropriate support available from an early stage. Lastly, we must learn from Scotland, who have already introduced private rented tenancies, which bring more security to private tenants.