03/07/2017 07:18 BST | Updated 03/07/2017 13:12 BST

Record Rough Sleeping Is A Scar On Our City - As Mayor I'm Determined To End It

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Rough sleeping is the sharpest end of the housing crisis and it is shameful that in London in recent years the number of people on our streets has been on the rise - doubling between 2010 and 2016.

As Mayor, I am determined to end this enduring scar on our city. I am pleased that our new focus at City Hall over the last year is already showing signs of progress - with statistics released on Friday confirming that, for the first time since 2009, we have not seen an increase in rough sleeping. Stemming the rise is one thing, but we still have a very long way to go to bring down the numbers of those spending the night on our streets.

There are many reasons why people end up sleeping rough - from mental health issues to family break-ups and drug addiction. There is never going to be an instant silver bullet to fix the problem, which is why I have brought people and organisations together - through my new 'No Nights Sleeping Rough' taskforce - to tackle the root causes of rough sleeping with a number of new solutions.

Through this taskforce we have secured an extra £4.2million to help rough sleepers in London, including the most entrenched. We have also secured £50million to invest in accommodation so that people can move from hostels into a place of their own, and I have committed to spending at least £9million every year on rough sleeping services.

This investment will take time to have its full effect - and the extra programmes may bring more rough sleepers into contact with services, meaning the reported number of rough sleepers may well rise before it starts to fall. The most important thing is that these services help rough sleepers get their lives back on track by getting people off the streets and into accommodation.

Unfortunately this is not an option for most of the 40% of London's rough sleepers who are from other European countries. They are affected by legal restrictions that mean unless they are working, they cannot receive help from Government to cover the cost of a roof over their heads.

So one of the most difficult issues we are grappling with is how we can help vulnerable people who are EU nationals who end up sleeping rough. There are around one million European nationals living in London, making a vital and welcome contribution to our city's economy and culture. But for a very small minority of those coming here from across Europe, things do not work out and they end up on the streets.

The question is: what is the best way we can help?

The truth is our hands are tied by Government's approach, which toughened further last year. They introduced a new policy that if EU nationals sleep rough it may constitute an abuse of their rights under EU treaties, meaning the Home Office can give them notice to leave the country.

I am completely opposed to this change in policy and we must make sure that EU nationals are able to access independent advice when the Home Office identifies them as abusing their EU treaty rights. This policy means that individuals found sleeping rough can be returned home without any help waiting for them at the other end. This is the framework that charities, local authorities and regional government, who are trying to help vulnerable EU nationals sleeping rough, now have to navigate.

We all start from the position that walking by and leaving people on the street is morally unacceptable. Those who sleep on the streets do so at great risk to their health and safety. The average age of death for a rough sleeper is just 47, and rough sleepers are 15 times more likely to be victims of violence.

Simply put, we have an obligation - a moral duty - to make sure that EU national rough sleepers can get off the streets and on the right track.

Our first response must always be to try and give them a helping hand and the information they need so they can find a sustainable lifestyle in London. But where people are unable to make a go of life in London, and where Government rules mean they are not entitled to stay here, we must look out for those rough sleepers and make sure those who are vulnerable receive the right support from family, friends, or local services when they return to their home country.

That's why it is so important that City Hall is funding 'Routes Home', a service that is run by the homelessness charity St Mungo's and that works with vulnerable non-UK nationals sleeping on our streets.

One recent example of the work 'Routes Home' is doing is the case of a Italian national who is deaf and mute. Her relationship with her family broke down, and on coming to London she found herself sleeping rough. 'Routes Homes' provided her with shelter whilst an assessment was made and it became clear that she had mental health issues. They were able to make contact with her family, who were extremely worried about her wellbeing. Routes Home's reconnection plan was complex, as it involved working with the family and social services in Italy and making sure she received the appropriate treatment on her return.

We want to make the case to Government for more support for services like this, to make sure that EU national rough sleepers are treated fairly, and that those who are vulnerable get the help they need. This means we must work with the Home Office, even if we don't always agree with their approach.

That is why I have asked my team at City Hall to put together a clear memorandum of understanding with the Home Office about how we work together - setting clear limits on data sharing, and, crucially, guaranteeing that whenever the Home Office is engaged in finding EU nationals sleeping rough, our support services for vulnerable citizens will be there right alongside them.

Of course, 'Routes Home' is just one of the services we support from City Hall and this in no way distracts from all our work to help UK nationals, who usually form the majority of the people we help. We aim to help everyone in need.

Some people say that rough sleeping has always existed and always will, and that there is nothing that can be done to stop it. That is simply not true. It has been reduced substantially in the past, and we can do so again. It will take time, but the new initiatives I am delivering can - and will - make a difference. And we must always make sure that those EU nationals who are on the streets, and who are vulnerable or at risk of becoming so, can get the help they need too.

Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London