The capital’s housing crisis is the single biggest barrier to prosperity, opportunities and fairness facing Londoners today. And rough sleeping – which all Londoners see on the streets every day – is the sharpest end of this crisis.
It is unacceptable that in London - one of the richest and most successful cities in the world - thousands of people are still sleeping rough on the streets every year. I believe it is our basic moral responsibility as a society to right this wrong.
Since becoming Mayor two years ago, I have made tackling rough sleeping a priority - investing millions more in a range of new services. Last year - for the first time in a decade - the number of rough sleepers in London started to fall, and 87% of those helped by City Hall services exited rough sleeping.
What we are doing in London, working together with councils and charities, is making a clear difference. But we can’t be complacent for a second. Every night that someone is left with no other choice but to sleep on the streets is a massive failure – a failure of all levels of government and of our society as a whole. With this happening to more than 7,000 people in London last year alone, it’s clear we still have a long way to go.
That’s why - building on the great work we have already been doing together – I am launching a new comprehensive action plan, which sets out for the first time what City Hall, the Government and others must do to fulfil my ambition of ending rough sleeping once and for all.
It is simply not true that because rough sleeping has always existed it therefore always will – there are things we can and must do to solve the problem. Other cities and countries around the world have shown that, with the right policies and funding in place, it is possible to reduce drastically the number of people sleeping rough in a relatively short space of time. There is no reason why we shouldn’t have the same level of ambition.
Over the last two years, I have brought key organisations together - through my ‘No Nights Sleeping Rough’ taskforce – not only to help provide an immediate route off the streets for everyone sleeping rough, but to ensure that, once they are off the streets, there is accommodation and support available for them to move on and live independent lives.
My new action plan is about using all the powers at City Hall’s disposal to build on this work with a host of new initiatives. These include more than doubling the number of outreach workers this autumn, improving winter shelter provision, ensuring better access to improving access to mental health services for rough sleepers, and investing more than £1.5million in expanding our No Second Night Out service for new rough sleepers.
But I can’t pretend that I will ever be able to solve this crisis alone. Rough sleeping has been allowed to spiral out of control, and most of the complex root causes of rough sleeping don’t fall within my remit. It is clear we need the Government to step up and play its part.
Since 2010, there has been a huge rise in the number of people sleeping rough every year across the country. Yet, depressingly, this has largely been ignored at a national level. We want to make it as easy as possible for the Prime Minister to act. So, in our new comprehensive action plan, we outline a detailed list of new services, initiatives and programmes that would require £574million of funding over five years from the Government, which City Hall and other partners would then help to deliver.
Crucially, we also make clear the wider legislative and structural changes that are required – from reviewing the unfair welfare reforms that are fuelling homelessness to improving the provision of mental health services.
As we have seen in other cases around the world, a concerted effort to tackle the root causes of homelessness and rough sleeping can significantly and relatively quickly reduce the need for - and therefore the cost of - specific services.
All it would take is for the Government to have the vision and the will to provide the substantial upfront investment, and we would see huge dividends in the future – not only by improving the lives of thousands of vulnerable people, but by saving millions of pounds that could then be invested elsewhere, like in our stretched public services. Over a number of years, the £574million investment we are proposing would be more than recouped through wider savings.
Rough sleeping and homelessness is often an issue that gets more attention in the winter months, particularly in the build up to Christmas. But we should never forget that sleeping rough is dangerous, lonely and harmful at any time.
We have a moral duty to do more – right now. I’m the first to admit that the plan I’m launching today is extremely ambitious. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was both wholly achievable and absolutely necessary. If fully implemented – and with the right support from all levels of government, charities and Londoners – I believe we could finally begin to make rough sleeping a thing of the past.
Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London