Failing the UK’s Homeless

OULC member, Patrick Morrish, considers the crisis of homelessness from a national angle. 

The efforts of Oxford Student Union’s On Your Doorstep campaign to encourage the city council to open emergency shelters every night of sub-zero temperatures and their lobbying of local MPs Anneliese Dodds and Layla Moran to repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, have ensured the issue of Oxford’s homelessness crisis has remained at the forefront of student consciousness. Armed with this awareness of the extent of the crisis in Oxford, it is the responsibility of students returning home over the Easter holidays to remember that homelessness is a national issue. We must encourage our local MPs to hold this government to account for its demonstrable failure to solve this problem.

A 2012 study by the homelessness charity Crisis revealed that of 1751 homeless people, 90% male and 10% female, the average age of death was 47 for the former and 43 for the latter, compared to 77 among the population living indoors. The number of people exposed to this risk of early fatality has risen over the eight years of Tory government. Though statistics about sleeping rough can be difficult to calculate, street counts can give an indication of the problem. Figures published in January reveal that 4,751 people slept rough on any one night in 2017. This represents a 15% increase from 2016, and double that of 2010. The North West has been hard hit, particularly Tameside, Salford, and Manchester, where rough sleeping has increased by 39% from 2016, quadrupling from 2010.

Statistics can occlude the grim reality of homelessness. Institutions which owe a duty of care to our citizens display at best apathetic, at worst malicious behaviour towards the homelessness problem. A homeless man – identified only as Kev – was found dead under a flyway in Bournemouth last month. The borough council, which had previously instructed the bus station to play bagpipe music through the night to prevent people sleeping rough, is currently defending itself against accusations that officers confiscated his sleeping bag under their auspices. Stoke-on-Trent Council, meanwhile, attempted to levy a £1000 fine for living in tents in the city centre; this is an absurd amount for people who cannot afford the £2-5 needed for Shelter accommodation. With the royal wedding on the horizon, a council leader in Windsor requested that ‘beggars’ be cleared out of the city centre so as not to spoil the show.

Theresa May’s statistical wrangling only serves to obscure the severity of the homelessness crisis. In December, the Labour MP for Tooting, Rosena Allin-Khan, asked why 2 500 children will wake up homeless on Christmas day. May flatly denied the comment, claiming that “statutory homelessness is lower now than it was for most of the period of the last Labour Government.“ But whilst the legal definition of homelessness means lacking a secure place to live, statutory homelessness involves further strict criteria. Focusing on statutory homelessness fails to reveal those in temporary accommodation, or types of ‘hidden homelessness’. For example, 75 740 households were in temporary accommodation – including night shelters, hostels, B&Bs and women’s refuges – on 31 December 2016. As Alex Cunningham, the Labour MP for Stockton North has written, children should be in “a home, not stuck in a hostel.“

Likewise, forms of ‘hidden homelessness’, such as sofa surfing or living in squats, do not appear on record. In 2013, a poll of 2000 UK adults found 32% of people have experienced this type of homelessness, or knew someone that had. Research by Crisis suggests 62% of single homeless people fall into the ‘hidden’ category.

Though the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act expanded the duty of English local housing authorities to give advice to the homeless, and to secure accommodation for those in ‘priority need’ and the ‘unintentionally homeless’, it is unlikely that the extra £48m will cover the cost of the problem at a time when councils are struggling to make ends meet. Don’t trust the Tories to deliver on their promise to eradicate homelessness by 2027.

Austerity measures and cuts to local authority budgets are political decisions, not inevitable consequences of the 2008 crash. The exacerbation of the homelessness crisis, like the problems with education and healthcare, are the result of the Tories cutting the safety net for people most in need; the fault of a government that displays a distinct lack of sympathy for the plight of poorer citizens to whom they owe a duty of care.

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