By Jon Sparkes
With terms like 'social justice' and 'tackling inequality' being used by all main political parties in recent years, and the political rhetoric increasingly shifting to the need for addressing the 'root causes' of social issues, one would be inclined to believe that homelessness, one of the most acute forms of poverty, is in decline. Troublingly, this is not the case.
Recent government figures show that 13,850 households were accepted as homeless between April and June of this year - a rise of 5% across England and 10% in London compared to the same time last year. This makes a total rise of 36% since 2009/10. The proportion of households becoming homeless due to the ending of a private tenancy was 30% (4,130 households) across England and 38% in London (1,690 households).
Rough sleeping has risen by 55% since 2010 and by 14% in just the last year. On any one night in England in 2014 more than 2,700 people slept rough. But this is only a snapshot and the actual figure is likely to be much higher.
We cannot ignore the reality behind these numbers. Homelessness is on the rise. We see this through the official figures and at Crisis we see it on a daily basis in our Skylight centres. The reasons people become homeless are diverse and at times complex. With a housing market that is no longer fit for purpose, the growth of zero-hours employment, and the perpetual cuts to housing benefit and homelessness services being imposed on local authorities, it is becoming increasingly impossible for people to keep a roof over their head.
On the ground, in our delivery centres, we see people with a wide range of support needs such as mental health, addiction, an illness or disability and low levels of education or work experience - the majority of whom have fallen through the safety net and barriers to secure stable housing have quickly escalated.
The average age of death of homeless people is just 47 - 30 years lower than the general population. They are nine times more likely to commit suicide and deaths as a result of infections are twice as likely. They are also 13 times more likely to be a victim of violence.
These facts are shocking and inexcusable. No one disagrees with this, in fact all main political parties committed to tackling homelessness in their manifestos in the run up to the last general election. Yet despite this intent, recent policy making on issues like welfare reform and housing is doing the opposite.
As significant welfare reform and housing bills make their way through parliament this legislative year, debates on cutting housing benefit for 18-21 year olds, and the security and affordability of the private rented sector will all come to play – with potentially dire consequences for people at the cusp of becoming homeless.
At Crisis we have a clear blueprint for what needs to be done, not only to address homelessness, but to prevent it. The effects of becoming homeless can escalate quickly, costing the public purse between £3,000 -£18,000 per person in the first year if we don’t act early.
Opportunities lie ahead with devolution, which will empower local authorities to design provision that really meets local need.
But we also need genuine commitment from across central government. This means departments working together to invest time and resources into a strategic approach to end homelessness in the UK for good. Given that more and more people are becoming homeless as a result of losing their home in the private rented sector, it’s vital that housing benefit actually covers the cost of renting. We also need a change in law so that no one is turned away from their local authority and forced to sleep rough because they do not qualify for support under the categories of priority need.
At the same time, we need greater investment in social housing and decisive action to make the private rented sector more accessible and affordable, along with radical solutions to tackle the severe shortage of truly affordable homes.
Ending homelessness makes political and economic sense but more importantly it makes sense at the level of human dignity. Nobody should be homeless in a civilised and caring society.
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