Only a very small minority of those officially categorised as “homeless” are actually sleeping rough on the streets. There are 73,120 in temporary accommodation. The latest estimate for the number sleeping rough on any given night is 3,569. A quarter of them are in London. The number sleeping rough has doubled since 2010 – they weren’t really counted properly before then and, inevitably, the figures are still unreliable.
Of course some will be “challenging” for the authorities to “engage” with as they refuse help. Many are drug addicts, or alcoholics, or mentally ill who might be erratic about keeping appointments or filling in forms. However, there are some who sleep on the streets simply because they have nowhere else to go. They have followed all the procedures and been denied any accommodation by their local council. I have had examples of such “casework” in my Inbox over the past year as a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham and had varying degrees of success in managing to help them.
Bob Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East, wants to do something about it.
On Friday his Homelessness Reduction Bill has its Second Reading. This week it won Government support. One change is that councils would be obliged to take preventative action. The obligation would start before the bailiffs arrive and someone is out on the street with a suitcase shuffling off to the town hall. If this happens to be a strapping single young man the Housing Department will quite likely tell him that he is not a “priority” and he is left to sleep on a park bench.
Instead local authorities would have a duty to help eligible people at risk of homelessness to secure accommodation 56 days before they are threatened with homelessness (up from 28 days at present). It would also ensure that other local services refer those either homeless or at risk of being homeless to local authority housing teams. If the early intervention fails and someone is still homeless the Council would have to provide some emergency relief – even if it is a single young man – rather than just leave him to sleep on the streets. The Bill has the support of the Government – which, of course, greatly increases its chances of becoming law.
The concern that councils have, understandably enough, is the extra pressure the new law would put them under. There might indeed be savings for the NHS and the criminal justice system by averting rough sleeping – but what of council budgets?
Crisis has estimated that a reduction in homelessness would save the taxpayer over £9,000 per person per year. They commissioned Nicholas Pleace at the University of York and Prof Dennis P. Culhane at the University of Pennsylvania to come up with the estimate. Researchers asked 86 people who had been homeless for at least 90 days about the services they had used. The fall in public spending is based on the average estimated reduction of £9,266 per person per year.
An earlier report offered various hypothetical examples – it includes a victim of domestic violence and someone else with learning difficulties. One consequence of refusing help to those deemed not a “priority” is that their situation deteriorates and they later do become a “priority” and end up costing the housing department more in the long term.
In any case, central Government have said that they would provide councils with extra funds to fully meet any extra costs of their obligations if this Bill becomes law.
In fact I am pretty unsympathetic about councils complaining about the cost of their provision for the homeless. This is because of the very substantial public health budgets which councils control. I have written before about how this money is largely wasted.
To take my own council as an example. It spends £23 million on public health. Just over two per cent – half a million pounds is allocated to “supportive housing”. A much bigger share should be. In Hammersmith and Fulham I am told that:
“Adult Social Care estimate that around 55 per cent of residents in the generic supported housing services for homeless people have support needs related to their mental health, often presenting with substance and/or alcohol misuse. Approximately 20 per cent of these residents will have severe and enduring mental illness.”
In other words a majority of those being put in general hostels should be placed in specialist hostels. A disgrace.
We are a prosperous and civilised nation and we should not be forcing people to sleep rough. Councils should offer the homeless – and those for whom the threat of homelessness is looming – a sympathetic, confidential, efficient and timely service. The result should be that nobody is refused a roof over their head. That is morally right and also a matter of good sense both in terms of the public finances and of public order.
MPs should pass the Blackman Bill and councils should make a success of it.