Neil Coyle: The government must admit its responsibility for the dramatic rise in homelessness
The statistics are stark – homelessness has surged and the number of rough sleepers dying on the streets has doubled. After eight years of damage, the government must take action, writes Neil Coyle, the chair of the Homesslessness APPG
Recent reports suggest a doubling of the number of homeless people dying on our streets in the last five years. The government has turned a blind eye to the annual increase in homelessness since 2010 but perhaps this latest figure will help secure action after eight years of not just ignoring the problem, but generating it. Policies implemented since Cameron entered Downing Street have directly contributed to the steep rise.
The mortality figures, obtained by a Guardian freedom of information request, show that at least 230 people have died on the streets in the last four years, more than one a week. Given there were an estimated 8,000 rough sleepers in London alone last year and more than 300,000 people in temporary accommodation nationally, perhaps we should be more shocked that the figure isn’t higher. It certainly could be – and will be if the current statistical trajectory is not remedied.
Charities working in the sector, as well as councils and NHS bodies, state that deaths of homeless people are likely to be far higher due to poor recording systems and where deaths are recorded; most occur in hospital, rather than outside, which skews statistics.
Heather Wheeler MP is the minister for homelessness and has pledged to resign if the rise in homelessness continues this year – a bold commitment. She has also stated that she is unsure why homelessness has risen every year since she was first elected; an even bolder revelation three months after being tasked with tackling the problem. There cannot be many jobs where celebrating such a lack of understanding would be tolerated, but such is ministerial life in May’s government.
Experienced hands in the sector are better placed to advise on the causes of the rapid growth in homelessness and have been stating their case to apparently ambivalent ministers. Organisations warned that coalition proposals to reorganise the NHS and axe public health budgets would leave hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems without sufficient support. Four in 10 homeless people have a mental health problem and have been more likely to become homeless since 2010.
Automatic benefit delays, including an initial 12-week average wait for the first universal credit payments, was bound to contribute to homelessness.
Ditching disability living allowance through the introduction of personal independence payments came with it a requirement that more than 500,000 disabled people were denied help.
Ending the social fund and hiking rents for 400,000 disabled people under the bedroom tax ‘spare room subsidy’ has also impacted on a more disadvantaged group of citizens and put more at risk of becoming homeless.
Charities have made their case for years but pleas for greater sensitivity and consideration have been met with obstinacy and obfuscation. Axing 40% of some councils’ budgets and decimating the Homes and Communities Agency funding has also heightened the housing crisis and it is no surprise that the result is a drop in overall home ownership and housebuilding, hardly likely to help tackle homelessness.
The infamous ‘just about managing’ have been left to manage too. We now have a society where far more people live just a month or two from homelessness; the loss of a job and ability to meet rent payments, or the breakdown of a relationship are often factors in homelessness.
The safety net has become more hole than rope, under consistent attack since 2010. Vital funding has been pulled and the government has, after eight years of damage, only now begun three small-scale national pilots to look at how to tackle the problem.
The taskforces are welcome, but the government must admit it has contributed massively to the dramatic rise in homelessness and deaths. Nor can three pilots be seen as a solution, especially given the minister’s commitment. If her resignation offer is serious, these pilots need rolling out further and in areas worse affected by the scale of the challenge.
Neil Coyle is Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and chair of the Homelessness APPG