That’s the message to politicians from Homeless Link, the national membership charity for organisations working directly with people who become homeless in England.
Today it launches its
manifesto, which sets out practical steps to end rough sleeping, create a long-term homelessness strategy and ensure more homes and better support for people with complex needs.
While its message is positive, the reality is that there has been an increase of one-third in rough sleeping since the start of this parliament five years ago.
Before 2010, the numbers were going down, thanks to investment in ‘no second night out’ initiatives, which involved sending outreach workers onto the streets to find people sleeping rough and encouraging them into shelters.
Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link, says gaps between NHS, local authorities, DWP and other service providers are a key cause of people becoming homeless.
The latest statistics will be published next month and he is “expecting another increase, as there has been in the official statistics for the past three years”.
“At Homeless Link, we are very keen to move the debate on from ‘soup and sleeping bags,’” Henderson says.
“I understand why we need night shelters and churches, because those on the streets are in desperate need, but we need an ambitious plan to end homelessness.
“There is a really big movement in the public services to focus on prevention - we spend a fortune on the symptoms. Crisis services are very expensive and often do not have good outcomes because we get to people too late.
“In our manifesto, we are talking about prevention, so people do not become homeless. What we want to get across to the politicians is that you can choose to end homelessness by investing.
“The next government can end homelessness - and save the state billions of pounds in crisis services.”
Put simply, homelessness is what happens when services fail. People who fall through those gaps in the mental health, care and criminal justice services end up on the streets.
“Other key frontline services have been cut and it feels like the gap in the safety net is now bigger. I don’t think homelessness is that complex, you can predict what is going to happen.
“When homeless people are admitted to hospital, three-quarters are discharged back onto the streets – this is easy to fix.
“Young people leaving care or people leaving prison - a timely intervention by charities or local authorities could prevent them from becoming homeless.”
Henderson says benefit sanctioning by DWP is hitting homeless people harder than others.
“We did a piece of research that showed homeless benefits claimants ten times more likely to lose their benefits than other unemployed people.
“Staff in the benefits office often do not understand or don’t know the client is homeless. They will think they are being cagey. We have been training staff in benefits office to identify homeless people. A lot of it is a lack of understanding.
“We want the sanctions regime to be reviewed.
“Homeless people often don’t say they are homeless because of the consequences and people are secretive because of their bad experiences.
“We found people are more likely to be open and candid with charities than with local authorities or DWP and that calls for greater partnership.”
Henderson says Homeless Link’s approach to these issues is focused on solutions.
“We work with government to try to fix these problems and we have had some success. There have been changes to DWP guidance around sanctions for homeless people.
“DWP’s staff now has greater discretion to delay applying the sanctions, that was a victory for us last year and we can achieve more. DWP said it was not their intention to create homelessness and we hope to work with them to fix the glitches.”
Housing is already a major political issue, with the main parties pledging an increase in new homes, yet homeless people aren’t part of that vision.
“They will always be at the bottom of the chain they get the accommodation nobody else wants,” says Henderson.
“There has been a lot of development of key worker housing and that does not benefit our people.
“The fact is most homeless people are reliant on the private rented sector and we know landlords are extremely reluctant to rent to our client group, who have complicated needs.
“It feels like a comedy of errors where they lose out in every situation and people don’t want to build for them or rent to them.
“There is good practice – Brighton is using stackable housing, shipping containers, but you would need thousands of these things and not a handful.
“Most of our clients are not considered priority need for council housing, so it can feel like a conspiracy where supply is concerned. Policy makers should prioritise this group.”
Despite the challenges the homeless face, the Homeless Link manifesto is focused on practical approaches the next government can take, including a national framework for investment in services and an ‘early action’ approach to stop people ending up on the streets.
The manifesto will be launched in parliament today, with the housing minister and the shadow housing minister set to attend.
“We want to draw a line in the sand around homeless and say there should be an increased profile in the new administration,” says Henderson.
“Fix the problems that cause homeless through improvements in health screening and an increase of housing supply to help everyone.
“We just have five recommendations and they are so straightforward, because we involved a lot of homeless people in the consultation process to develop this manifesto.”
Homeless Link’s five-point plan demonstrates that the goal of ending homelessness is within the striking difference for the next government, whatever party or parties end up in power.