What’s the real story for Rough Sleepers at Christmas?

Neil Stewart, Editorial Director, The Equality Hub

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

The media are struggling to tell the story of homelessness and politicians are stretching the definition to suit their own purposes in a way that does not serve the needs of rough sleepers and the genuinely homeless.

Victoria Derbyshire is running a story on sofa surfers, young 16-24 year olds living in spare rooms or sleeping in friends flats. Channel 4 decided to look at rough sleepers dogs, how important dogs are to some, how they help get donations and give purpose and structure to chaotic lives. Another had a father sharing a room in a shelter with his son, but by the end of the piece the council had found him more appropriate accommodation – because that’s in practice what councils do, prioritise children. All good insights to the complex problem of homelessness but mixed up and slightly misleading if you want to solve the issue of rough sleeping.

The Public Account Committee puts the current figure for families in temporary accommodation at 77,240 with 120,540 children housed in this situation. Looked at one way this is a stunning achievement by councils with limited supply after 10 years of austerity. Looked at another it is shocking failure to meet predictable housing need, especially for children. At the end of that are the estimated 9000 rough sleepers, mostly single – but are they all part of the same problem or are they different?

Temporary accommodation and rough sleeping is a situation clearly being made worse by benefit reforms biasing some landlords against tenants dependent of benefit, where rent used to be paid directly to the Landlord.

Some news stories are the housing equivalent of “trickle down economics”, if one end of the market supply is fixed (build more in Basildon) the other end, rough sleepers, is bound to fix itself. Anyone who works with rough sleepers knows this is not enough. They are not just pushed off the end of the housing market by economic cost and availability, many fall off, and keep falling off because of family break up, addiction, mental health, chronic illness, dysfunctional lifestyles, exclusion and social injustice.

On one hand the public are told that we need to build 300,000 houses to meet demand and invited to view young people who cannot afford to “own” their own home as victims, intergenerational loser, deprived. This is stretching it too far.

In Germany where renting is the most common mode of housing model this would make 65% of the German population victims of housing deprivation. They are clearly not. There is a serious issue of supply in the UK and one of high rents and short tenures but plenty of families live happy and secure lives in this rented sector. Buy to let landlords may not all be saints, but their demand for property has also driven up the refurbishment of large numbers of properties.

The estimate this Christmas that 9000 people will be sleeping rough this December, is double the estimate of the figure last year – a serious deterioration which almost certainly has more to do with benefit reform than housing supply.

How many categories of homelessness can we have before the term gets debased, from the “asset poor” who cannot be happy and secure unless they own their home, through the “happy renters”, to the “precarious renters” always a month away from not having a roof over their head to the “sofa surfers”, overwhelmingly single to the rough sleepers at the hard end of the chain.

Until we recognise that the homelessness of many rough sleepers is not just a continuum of economic and supply issues alone but a distinct social challenge that needs joined up responses, not just from benefits and local government but from health and social care we will all be back here next Christmas looking at a rerun of the same stories.

Homeless & Inclusion Health 2018

The UK Faculty for Homeless and Inclusion Health’s annual symposium on health, homelessness and multiple exclusion takes place in London on Wednesday 7th March and Thursday 8th March 2018.

The symposium is developed by Pathway (the homeless health charity) on behalf of the Faculty for Homeless and Inclusion Health.

This is now the sixth annual symposium and study day, bringing together the latest in evidence and best practice in health and public services.

Visit the conference website here.