Let’s run through some news you may have missed in the last couple of weeks. In Bournemouth, a coroner launched an investigation after a rough sleeper, identified as Kev, was found dead in a carpark. Near Maidstone, two men were jailed for killing 21-year-old Razvan Sirbu who had been living in a tent.
These two stories highlight the often frightening reality of sleeping rough. The fact that anyone is forced to sleep on the streets in 2018 is a stark and painful reminder of the impact of our chronic housing crisis. That’s why Shelter will not stop campaigning until there is a safe, secure, affordable home for everyone.
Unfortunately, government statistics published today show that more and more people are becoming victims of the housing crisis. In Autumn 2017, 4,751 people were rough sleeping in England – up 15% in just a year. What’s more, there has been a shocking 169% increase since 2010, when the figures first started being recorded - the highest number yet.
Delve deeper into the figures and the numbers become more disquieting. Homelessness often hits young people harder than other groups, as they tend to be lower paid, and they are entitled to less housing benefit than older people. Today’s figures show that rough sleeping among under-25-year-olds rocketed by 30% across England in a year.
This speaks to a worrying trend, and should prompt government to think carefully about its decision last year to remove the automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18-21-year-olds.
Men have traditionally made up the majority of recorded rough sleepers, but this year there has been a notable increase in women sleeping rough. Throughout England, a total of 653 female rough sleepers were recorded in 2017, a 28% rise compared with 2016. What’s more, these figures come as domestic violence charities warn that new government funding proposals will put refuges at risk. The danger is that even more women in vulnerable situations, will find themselves on the street.
The numbers are bleak, but sadly, rough sleepers aren’t the only victims of our broken housing market. Our homelessness crisis extends far beyond our streets. Today’s figures do not capture the thousands of people, including children and families living in hostels and bed and breakfasts, or those forced to sofa surf. They certainly do not capture those who are struggling to pay their rent every month, or those who live in homes where poor conditions are making them ill.
All forms of homelessness are up since 2010 and this has not happened in a vacuum. Successive governments have failed to build enough affordable public housing, so more people are now forced to live in the unaffordable, unstable private rented sector. This situation has also been exacerbated by cuts to the welfare safety net, meaning housing benefit fails to cover the rent in the majority of areas.
These factors make it more likely that more people will fall into rent arrears and homelessness. They also make it more difficult for councils and charities to help people who end up on the streets.
Steps are being taken to reverse the worrying rise in homelessness. Shelter has supported new legislation, the Homelessness Reduction Act, which comes into force this April. The new law will force councils to act earlier when people are threatened with homelessness and will give single people without children more rights to meaningful help.
However, we are clear that new legislation will not address the roots cause of the homelessness crisis. In the long term, as a country, we should be building 300,000 homes a year. Of these, we think half of these should be set at affordable rents – taking up no more than 30% of income. In the short term, the government needs to address levels of housing benefit so they reflect local rents. And it needs to make private renting more stable and less prone to arbitrary rent increases.
The government says it is committed to halving rough sleeping over the course of the parliament. Unfortunately, Thursday’s numbers tell a different story. We need stronger political will to address the structural causes of homelessness and rough sleeping and we need it soon.
Until we do, more lives will be ruined and we will continue to be haunted by tragic stories like Kev’s and Razvan’s.