Hugh Gaffney: Homeless people should be supported - not criminalised. We must abolish the Vagrancy Act
The Government has not only failed to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness but have also reduced the support which is available to homeless people, writes Hugh Gaffney
A homeless person dies on average every nineteen hours in the UK. There has been a 165% increase in the number of rough sleepers in England over the last eight years. One in every two hundred people in the UK are homeless.
How has this become an acceptable state of affairs in what is supposed to be the world’s fifth-richest country?
It is time the Government not only tackled homelessness but also addressed its underlying causes.
One of the UK’s leading homelessness charities, Shelter, has highlighted that the single leading cause of homelessness is the ending of a private tenancy. Three in every ten cases of homelessness are caused by the loss of private tenancy, often triggered by both rent increases and housing benefit cuts.
Shelter has also revealed the sheer number of people living in temporary accommodation in the UK, currently standing at 281,000. The quality of this temporary accommodation often leaves much to be desired with families finding themselves crammed into B&B rooms or even repurposed shipping containers.
There have also been warnings that more than a million households are at risk of becoming homeless by 2020 as low-income families find themselves struggling to cope with private sector rents in many parts of the country. So, what is the Government’s solution to what is clearly a growing homelessness crisis?
They have put their faith in the Homelessness Reduction Act, which shifts responsibility for tackling homelessness onto local authorities. But the National Audit Office and local authorities have repeatedly highlighted that cuts from the Government, such as those affecting local housing allowances, will make it difficult for homelessness to be tackled at a local level.
I think it is time that the Government stepped up to their responsibility to tackle homelessness by ending rip-off rents in the private sector, building social housing and increasing housing benefit. The effects of homelessness on individuals often results in family breakdown, mental illness and substance dependence.
Yet we have seen nine years of cuts from the Government impact support services for homeless people. Homeless people also continue to face discrimination when it comes to accessing basic healthcare such as being denied the ability to register at GP surgeries. This illustrates that the Government have not only failed to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness but have also reduced the support which is available to homeless people.
The homelessness crisis is real in communities all across the country and Westminster was no exception, with homeless people sleeping in the tunnels at Westminster station. Two of those who were sleeping in the tunnels died last year. This should have been a wake-up call for the Government, but no action has been forthcoming.
During the recess, those homeless people who had been sleeping in the tunnels were evicted and a metal grate installed to prevent them from regaining access. No notice or warning was given to them beforehand and little support was offered to them following their eviction.
The tunnels offered them both warmth and security, particularly when the alternative was sleeping rough on the streets. Such punitive action against homeless people should not be tolerated, particularly not on the doorstep of Parliament.
Homeless people should be supported and not criminalised. It’s for that reason I support the abolition of the Vagrancy Act. The Vagrancy Act criminalises homeless people whilst the real crime is the failure of the Government to tackle the homelessness crisis in Britain.
Hugh Gaffney is Labour MP for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill