Ahead of the December General Election, The Connection’s Chief Executive Pam Orchard explains why the next government must make overcoming the homelessness crisis a priority.
Across the country most political and media attention is on Brexit and the forthcoming general election. Thankfully, some politicians and commentators are now pointing out how this is obscuring other very pressing issues in our society.
Our day to day experience makes clear there is a homelessness crisis. The number of people sleeping rough in England has almost trebled since 2010. Surely, in 21st century Britain, this inexorable and shameful rise in rough sleeping—along with all types of homelessness—has to be at the top of the non-Brexit policy priority list.
Day in, day out at The Connection at St Martin’s we help people tackle mental illness, benefits issues, addiction, relationship breakdown and trauma. We provide a wide range of services to homeless people in central London, helping with practical support such as showers and laundry to help finding work, accommodation and other sustainable routes off the streets. Each day brings new faces through our door and we find we are opening new cases much more quickly than we can resolve them.
So what will it take? Having faced a similar crisis in the early 90s, the UK undertook groundbreaking work to address the homelessness crisis – we know it is possible. The crisis can be averted. The developments at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government over the past 18 months to create a new Rough Sleeping Initiative is a start but much more needs to be done.
Those of us working in homelessness know that you don’t overcome the problems just by providing temporary night shelters, breakfast and showers. These are only the start, because homelessness is an indicator of more deep-rooted social problems. If we want to tackle the problem, we need to deal with underlying causes, not just symptoms.
To address rough sleeping and all types of homelessness over the next five years, the next government has some achievable options:
Invest in an urgent, ambitious programme to build more affordable housing
Official estimates show suggest around 5,000 sleep rough in England and Wales on any one night. The charity Crisis estimates that the true number is much higher – around 8,000. An investment of just £500m could cover the costs of building genuinely affordable accommodation for each of those people. With rents set at genuinely affordable levels, matching local housing allowance rates, this is accommodation which could provide a sustainable, long term home. Advances in technology make low cost house building quicker, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than ever before.
Invest in resettlement support so that people can make a fresh start and move on
The vast majority of people who are homeless want a fresh start and to move into a settled life as a contributing member of their local community. Many have been in work and are very keen to work again. Once in accommodation, it can take time to settle, register with a GP, make friends, create local support networks, maybe learn skills like budgeting, cooking, how to look after a home.
Government needs to invest in a national framework of resettlement support throughout the UK to make resettlement a realistic route off the streets
Invest in mental health and addiction treatment to prevent further homelessness
Our experiences tells us that mental health and substance addiction are common barriers to homeless people finding a sustainable route off the streets. The current service provision is disastrously inadequate. We need investment in joint work between health and homelessness professionals to provide psychological treatment to tackle the underlying causes of mental illness, addiction and homelessness. Supporting people in their own homes gives them a much better chance to recover from crisis and move into a more stable life.
It is tempting to feel defeated by homelessness and to be overwhelmed by the numbers and complexity of the issues involved.
However – to put the problem in perspective – just taking London alone, there are 9 million residents. Official figures record around 4,000 people who were seen rough sleeping in the last quarter – just 0.04%.
Regardless of what you want to happen with Brexit, everyone in the country is united in knowing this is completely unacceptable. This is why every party and parliamentary candidate must pledge to end this homelessness crisis.
 Crisis Homelessness Projections, 2017 – https://www.crisis.org.uk/media/237582/crisis_homelessness_projections_2017.pdf
 Rough sleeping in London (CHAIN reports), October 2019 – https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/chain-reports