Rough sleeping: “You can’t put a plaster on a gaping wound”

A review isn’t going to get rough sleepers off the streets and into stable accommodation. Little wonder there’s an air of world-weary scepticism surrounding the Prime Minister’s latest announcements

By Mark Cantrell 

SOME may feel the last thing that rough sleepers need is yet another government review, but the Prime Minister’s offer of extra cash to help get them off the streets is – for what it’s worth – certainly a less bitter pill.

Yesterday, Boris Johnson jumped in ahead of the release of latest annual snapshot figures on rough sleeping by announcing an extra £236 million of funding support. But if he was hoping to distract attention from the still-dire situation, it hasn’t quite worked.

“As the most brutal and devastating form of homelessness, it’s right that the Prime Minister is focusing on ending rough sleeping and dedicating funding to this. But ultimately, we need this money to translate into real homes rather than paying to keep people homeless in hostels and night shelters,” said Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis.

Johnson’s ‘largesse’ builds on funding commitments the Government has already made, according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), and will go towards Housing First style ‘move on’ accommodation for up to 6,000 rough sleepers.

Quite whether this extra money is enough to help Johnson achieve the stated goal of ending rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament is another matter. That’s why the Prime Minister says he has appointed Dame Louise Casey to lead an independent review and report back on the causes and potential solutions to street homelessness.

“It is simply unacceptable that we still have so many people sleeping on the streets, and I am absolutely determined to end rough sleeping once and for all,” the Prime Minister said. “We must tackle the scourge of rough sleeping urgently, and I will not stop until the thousands of people in this situation are helped off the streets and their lives have been rebuilt.”

Homes not hostels

Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions, January 2020. Photo by Jessica Taylor. ©UK Parliament.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick MP added: “I’m determined that we end rough sleeping in this Parliament, meeting our moral obligation to support the most vulnerable in society.

“We will be bringing together housing, addiction, mental health and the criminal justice system as never before to tackle this social ill from every angle. The coordinated effort that we will now pursue, beginning with this review, builds on the progress we have made in recent years, reducing the number of people sleeping on the streets.”

Fine words, but the elephant in the room is the chronic lack of genuinely affordable homes, and the impact of nigh on a decade’s worth of welfare reforms, that have seen housing benefit dwindle far behind rents. This wasn’t lost on the industry.

“The Prime Minister rightly wants to end rough sleeping before the end of the Parliament, but unless his Government tackles the drought of genuinely affordable homes, homelessness isn’t going anywhere,” said Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter.

“Rough sleeping is only the tip of the iceberg – there are literally hundreds of thousands more homeless people stuck in temporary accommodation.

“You can’t put a plaster on a gaping wound. Serious investment in social housing is what’s needed. The upcoming budget is the perfect opportunity to champion a new generation of social homes and increase housing benefit, so it covers the basic cost of private rents.”

Neate’s comment was prompted by the latest Annual Rough Sleeping Snapshot 2019, published by the MHCLG. According to the figures, there were 4,266 people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in Autumn 2019. This is down by 411 people or 9% from the year before, but for all that, rough sleeping remains at far greater levels than in 2010, when the Conservatives first returned to Government: up by 2,498 people or a rise of 141%.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive, Crisis.

Unsurprisingly, for all that the drop in rough sleeping is welcome, industry figures are less than impressed by the situation.

“It’s great news to see any reduction in the numbers of people rough sleeping – fewer people sleeping on our streets means fewer people exposed to exploitation, extreme weather and the threat of violence. But unless we see people being offered homes, not hostels, we know from experience that people will return to the streets,” said Sparkes.

“To truly end rough sleeping, the Government must recognise the intolerable pressure many in society are under with low incomes, high rents and a lack of affordable housing pushing people into homelessness. The reality is that this problem will persist until we build the social homes we desperately need and restore housing benefit to a level where it covers the cost of rents.”

Rick Henderson, the chief executive of Homeless Link, added: “It is good news that the 2019 snapshot recorded fewer people sleeping on our streets, a mark of progress that suggests that increased Government funding and the tireless efforts of frontline services are having an impact.

“However, the overall number – which is 141% higher than in 2010 – is unacceptable, and a reduction in rough sleeping does not mean that more people are leaving homelessness behind.

“The reality is that many areas are falling back on short-term, emergency solutions and Government is yet to commit to a long-term strategy securing the support that many people dearly need. Without this, we risk creating a bottleneck into services with inadequate routes out to more permanent homes and the support people need to keep them.

“We are clearly getting something right. What we need now is cross-Government strategic action and funding that tackles the root causes of homelessness and ends it for good.”

James Prestwich, director of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing, said: “While it’s welcome news that the Government has announced an extra £236 million to help people who are sleeping rough in England, it remains completely unacceptable that in one of the wealthiest countries in the world more than 4,000 people are forced into sleeping on our streets.

“And these figures only represent a single-night snapshot and are therefore unlikely to represent the full extent of the problem, while many more people are forced to ‘sofa surf’ or live in unsuitable accommodation.

“Rough sleeping is a symptom of wider problems, including a shortage of genuinely affordable housing and a welfare system that no longer supports people on low incomes to meet their housing costs.

“We need to see a cross-governmental approach to end the scourge of rough sleeping, including financial support for homes at social rents, good quality supported housing and a review of the impact of welfare policies on meeting the Government’s stated objective of ending the national shame of rough sleeping.”

Local action

Ending rough sleeping within the timescale of this Parliament is an “achievable goal”, according to housing group Riverside’s executive director of care and support, John Glenton.

“However, the devil is always in the detail with these announcements and we want to know more about what this means,” he said. “And over and above that much more needs to be done.

“We’re still only back to 2016 levels of rough sleeping, and it will take long-term, strategic, sustained investment in innovative schemes and different ways of doing things to get the truly significant decreases.

“These include projects like our Housing First scheme in Medway funded by the Rough Sleeper Initiative, the Street Engagement Hub in Manchester or the Street Buddies outreach approach in Westminster, which is working with long-term entrenched rough sleepers.

“Housing First is an excellent initiative, but it is not the right solution for everyone, and the new money should be combined with additional funding for other forms of relevant, well-managed service models, including supported, communal accommodation.

“This investment also needs to be combined with services that help people stay in their accommodation and address other needs such as poor mental health, as well as preventing new people coming onto the streets which is a major factor in numbers remaining high. We see the benefit of this in places like Leeds and Enfield via our ‘Engage’ model of floating support.”

The GM way

Salford City Mayor Paul Dennett and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.

Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham took the occasion to make the case for the combined authority’s A Bed Every Night scheme, which is said to have more than proved its worth. Indeed, he went so far as to urge the Government to back the scheme with funding, suggesting its success could be replicated elsewhere.

The latest figures from the GMCA claim that the number of people sleeping rough in the city region has fallen 37% in a year and has almost halved in two. Meanwhile, Greater Manchester’s figure of 151 people sleeping rough across all its 10 boroughs is the lowest it has been since 2015.

“Tonight, in Greater Manchester around 450 people will be in shelters across our 10 boroughs – this is only happening because Greater Manchester has pulled together and raised funds to help people sleeping rough, alongside the goodwill of hundreds of volunteers,” Burnham said.

“These figures suggest our approach is working and that the country could end this crisis much more quickly and save lives if the Government was to help us fund A Bed Every Night and adopt it more widely. But we now also need much greater focus on the causes of homelessness – since 2016 housing benefit has not kept pace with rent increases. It is not enough for Government to end the freeze – they must now restore benefits to levels of actual rents.”

Salford city mayor, Paul Dennett, who also serves as the combined authority’s lead on homelessness and housing, added: “It is time Westminster acknowledged our pioneering work and made our policies the nationwide strategy for tackling rough sleeping.

“Homelessness is a crisis in this country but in Greater Manchester we have a blueprint for success, one that has helped hundreds off the streets in just a few years. But it is simply unsustainable for the Government to expect local authorities and others, 10 years into a period of austerity and swingeing cuts to councils’ budgets, to fund solutions ourselves.

“Government must also review their existing ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ policy and its impact on destitution and rough sleeping, properly address the four-year freeze on the Local Housing Allowances in the forthcoming Budget and put a stop to no-fault evictions.

“In addition, Government’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy is a major contributory factor and must be suspended. Urgent action is required to tackle the real causes of the housing, homelessness and rough sleeping crisis.”

There’s the thing; it’s not as if the agencies and organisations operating at the frontline are lacking for expertise, knowledge and can-do spirit. What’s needed is a government committed to more than headline grabbing gestures.

An independent review may have its uses; one of them might simply be to grant Johnson’s government the appearance of action. And that’s the last thing rough sleepers need right now.



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