Tackling homelessness is not a political football

The Government is under pressure to tackle homelessness, as it was reported that the rate of those rough sleeping has increased for the seventh consecutive year, correlating directly with the seven years in which the Conservatives have been in government.

There may perhaps be some defence for ministers, given figures are only available from 2010, and that the rates may have been climbing since before their time in Government. However, a failure to reverse an increase in figures in England from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,751 in 2017 is a tough one for ministers to explain.

The health and safety of those that are homeless was made more apparent in February and March as the UK was hit full force by the ‘Beast from the East,’ which saw record low temperatures hit the UK. As a result, a man discharged weeks before from hospital after suffering from pneumonia froze to death.

This tragic incident is only one example of many. The number of homeless people recorded dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation has more than doubled over the last five years in the UK from 31 in 2013 to 70 in 2018. According to figures published in The Guardian, the average age of a rough sleeper at death is 43, roughly half of the UK’s life expectancy.

The Homeless Reduction Act of 2017 legally requires local authorities to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent homelessness. This however seems to be yet another policy area that government has delegated into the hands of local authorities. The paradox is that government has done this, whilst simultaneously cutting funding to local authorities.

Not only does homelessness have a dramatic impact on a person’s physical health, but homelessness is placing a massive strain on already struggling mental health services. According to Homeless Link, among homeless people, 44% have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

The organisation points out that homelessness is stressful, lonely, and traumatic, all of which are major contributing factors. This is compounded by the fact that many homeless people may, in their struggle, turn to alcohol and other substances. Suicide rates are nine times higher than in the rest of the population in this demographic.

Homeless Link is calling for a national strategy to end rough sleeping. Addressing the housing crisis is one small part of this and the Government needs to seek to address the issue in a more holistic way that encompasses the health and wellbeing of those that are the very worse off in our society.

In November 2017, then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid set out the laudable ambition to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it all together by 2027; also setting up a new Rough Sleeping Advisory Panel.

Even right-leaning publication The Spectator has attacked the pressures placed on government at a local level. Southwark Borough Council in London, which was tasked with piloting the new Act, received a £1 million grant to trial the policy over two years in 2016, yet still had to spend an extra £750,000 from its own budget to uphold its obligations to the legal statue.

With this as the result of the trial, the Government pushing through of the Act may not yield the anticipated results. According to Stephanie Cryan, Southwark Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing, “We see the benefits of the Act, the prevention work is happening, but it’s just that it comes at a financial cost.”

The Act allocated £72 million to English Councils over three years to help them meet their new obligations. However, it remains to be seen whether this is enough. If not, the result will be more of those most in need falling between the cracks and failing to receive the assistance they need, which could have potentially devastating consequences for their health.