A look at the state of homelessness in modern Britain: the causes, effects, and what can be done.
by Daniel Cousins
Homelessness: only three missed pay cheques from the kerb.
A lot of you will have already passed this milestone; and if you’re younger I bet you’ve got plans for an active and lively middle age nonetheless. Longterm plans don’t hold much water on the street — it’s difficult enough to survive day-to-day and hand-to-mouth.
The estimates for how many people find themselves homeless are striking. In the last year 280,000 people approached their local council for some kind of homeless assistance; of these, around 112,000 made a formal application to get statutory ‘homeless’ status, whilst 7,500 people were recorded as sleeping rough at some point during the year. That was twice as many as in 2009. The problem is getting worse: 2010 saw the year that homelessness started going up rather than down. Recent cuts to welfare, local authority budgets and services, combined with the additional pressure on the NHS and depressed wages across the workplace, have exacerbated the causes of homelessness and blunted the tools to fix it. Furthermore, these numbers vastly underplay the true depth of the problem. A study by Cambridge University’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research and commissioned by Centrepoint, suggests that the number of young people relying on some kind of homeless assistance is close to 83,000, which is three times more than official government records. This study attempts to factor in those not recorded by the government; thousands of ‘hidden homeless’ living in squats, ‘sofa-surfing’, or seen as intentionally homeless and therefore not fitting the narrow classification.
The government has sidestepped its responsibility to tackle the problem especially for young adults not in ‘priority’ categories (such as under the age of 18 or pregnant), through not fully understanding and facing the scale of the issues. Instead, it has put huge additional pressure on local authorities, the major homeless charities (such as Shelter, Crisis, Centrepoint and the JRF), volunteers and donors around the country, to support and staff the 38,000 bed hostels, as well as the various food, care and clothing services, that exist to help vulnerable people. This is familiar ground, with parallel issues arising from the government’s seeming irreverence towards poverty writ large — manipulation of statistics, re-framing of key measurements, and an absolute reduction in welfare. Despite government overtures claiming they have increased investment, they are pushing ahead with plans, among others, to cut housing benefit for 18 – 21 year olds — money that is crucial to fund hostel beds and keep young adults from sleeping rough. Furthermore the wider issue of a national housing crisis is escalating, with the number of families in temporary accommodation the highest since 2008 and ‘right to buy’ initiatives likely to make the social housing shortages worse.
As a strong western economy we should really be eliminating homelessness as a priority — investing in our society, giving them the means to actively contribute through work, family, and community. A safe and secure home is the bedrock of this. We have the necessary resources and infrastructure, not to mention excess food and drink wasted from profligate lunchtime consumerism. Yet somehow we have a situation where the Red Cross is providing food aid within our own borders for the first time since the Second World War, while the concentration of billionaires in the capital tops the world ranking. The question is, how do we create a better system that provides the means for people to escape homelessness or better still stop them getting there in the first place?
Let’s be straight — there is no simple answer to this question. Root causes are multifaceted and each person’s story is complex and individual to them, but here are some of the key areas to explore:
- Housing: As is well documented, the last and current governments didn’t do enough to keep supply at pace with demand; they didn’t build as the population boomed, neither council housing or in partnership with private builders, nor did they legislate a percentage of the existing stock for low income use. The housing crisis has been further compounded by cuts to housing benefit, as the drive to shrink the state continues. Consider London; a young person is looking at a rent of nearly £750 per month for a literal box with a shower come kitchen come bedroom; worse, not even being able to afford a room in a shared house in the cheaper end of town.
- Jobs: Most people who are on the street can’t get a job. Many homeless people desperately want to work, but their ability to find a job and hold it down, when there isn’t even certainty of where your next meal or shower is coming from, is incredibly tough. When a job is secured it is likely to be unskilled and may only pay enough to curtail any financial help currently being received, and often isn’t enough to propel the person out of the homelessness trap and survive without the help of hostels and food banks. Sadly this cycle of homelessness and unemployment is very difficult to break, and relies on a better investment in jobs and skills and fairer system of welfare.
- Mental health: It is recorded that around 80% of homeless people have some form of mental health need, ranging from depression and alcoholism to schizophrenia and hard drug addiction. All of which are more difficult to manage in a position of homelessness. This compounds the emotional effects already mentioned and most of those with health issues won’t have the access to get the help that is widely available, only further pushing them away from any lifelines.
- Domestic abuse: 20% of homeless women cite an experience or fear of domestic violence as one of the main causes of their situation — only for a number to be forced into sex work as a way to survive. This statistic is at further risk by the reduction in funding changing the rules for access to legal aid, having to provide hard evidence upfront and giving vulnerable women less alternative to escape. One of the shocking realities of being a single female trapped in an abusive relationship or living rough on the street.
And where does that leave our young adults (particularly young men), the least vulnerable but also disproportionally the least provided for — the bottom of every list, what hope is there for them in times when everyone is looking for ways to prioritise and cut back. These are the bulk of those mentioned not considered in government initiatives and hidden from popular statistics. In London alone, 8% of 16 – 24 year olds are reported as recently being homeless.
All these factors conspire to create situations from which it is very hard to escape, and can become a negative spiral in which one easily leads to another. Alcoholism to drugs, to sex work, to disease, to sleeping rough, to acute mental health issues and an all-out isolation from self and society.
Let’s not forget, anyone can become homeless. Anyone. It is rarely something a person chooses to become. All it takes is an unfortunate series of events — a sudden breakup, a family death, or loss of a job — as a hostel manager once told me: “you are only three missed pay cheques from the kerb”, and once you are there it is very hard to get back. This couldn’t be truer for our young people as it is today, in a culture of small-statism, a lack of funding for initiatives and welfare targeting them in particular, and a lack of provision of access to training and education to prepare them for long term employment. Not to mention, a lack of jobs if and when they get the skills.
I believe the problem is getting worse as a result of time we live in. One where we‘ve been coerced in to viewing the world through the darkened filter of a ‘crippling deficit’ and of guilt at what world we are leaving for our children. This is divisive rhetoric that sub-consciously pushes us to focus more on ourselves and our own prosperity ahead of how we create a compassionate, functioning, community for all. We the public are being falsely polarised — by policy, media, and perceived desperation — into the virtual camps of the fiscally responsible, hard-working, ‘aspirers’ and the lazy, freeloading, ’benefit street’ sub-class, and the more we remain isolated and apathetic at these extremes the more this false dichotomy is validated.
This rise in an ‘us and them’ mentality is epitomised by the ‘defensive architecture’ popping up around our high streets — a corporate sign of dispassion more stark than normal. Beds of metal spikes, alarm clock sprinklers, and artificially segmented benches. It is a divided society which is apathetic to these brutal iron-clad measures. The same society which is expected to turn a blind eye and supports the eviction of homeless campers from around Manchester city centre. The people, like many others in the metropolitan heartlands of the UK, just want an opportunity to be seen and their pleas heard, rather than existing as subterranean shadows forgotten by the world. It is believed some were denied legal aid and faced imprisonment if they didn’t move on — we live in a society that will arrest people for being homeless — and when it came to leaving found their belongings thrown into dustbins.
It would be remiss to say the government, both central and local, don’t intervene in part, but nowhere near enough. The figures speak for themselves, both for the drivers pushing people to the street as well as the lack of care, compassion and understanding for these people, their circumstances and needs. Ultimately a more unified society — which makes bold measures to reconnect with these people — will be a fairer more productive society — morally, societally, and economically. We have the power to help. As individuals — giving what you can or getting involved with the fantastic charities and organisations already doing so much to help this community — and as voters in a democratic society we have the power to pressure our MPs to keep the government honest and to not let them overlook these people as a non-voting sub-class to be kept subdued by goodwill alone.