Christmas traditionally provokes pangs of conscience about those who are sleeping rough. John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, has rather mixed feelings about this seasonal variation to compassion:
“Relying on the vicissitudes of the bleeding heart is a hit-and-miss affair, as is witnessed in the winds of January when, each year, the street homeless get little and often nothing of the care and careful handling they get before and over Christmas.”
That is why Bird puts the focus on the “bottom up” solution of self help rather than the top down approach of assistance from Government.
Of course both have a role to play.
The official definition of homelessness refers to those in temporary accommodation rather than “rooflessness” – of the street homeless. According to the latest figures for England there are 79,190 households in temporary accommodation.
It is harder to measure the number in the far worse plight of sleeping rough. Teams go out and count them and can hardly be expected to spot everyone. Under the Labour Government there wasn’t even a proper effort to count them.
The most recent official tally was for 2016 and the estimate was 4,134, up from 3,569 the previous year.
The Guardian recently asserted that rough sleeping is “a problem that everyone knows is getting worse”. The evidence is rather more mixed. We can expect the official figures (provided by local authorities) for 2017 in about a month’s time.
St Mungo’s do their own counts in London. Their latest report says:
“In April – June 2017, outreach teams recorded a total of 2,584 people sleeping rough across London, representing a 4% decrease on the 2016 figure of 2,689.”
The good news is that in April this year the Homelessness Reduction Act will come into force. This will mean that people will no longer be forced to sleep on the streets. Instead the requirement will be that “all people found to be homeless and in priority need will be provided with interim accommodation” by the local authority. At present, single young men are handed a glossy leaflet by a housing officer and sent off to sleep on a park bench. That will change due to a private members bill from a Conservative MP, Bob Blackman, backed by a Conservative Government.
Does that mean rough sleeping will end? Sadly it is not as simple as that. Often the problem is that people refuse help – many are alcoholics, drug addicts or have mental health problems. As I have written before councils could do far more to provide them with specialist help from their £2.6 billion Public Health budgets – money which is largely wasted at present.
Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive at Crisis, says:
“The Homelessness Reduction Act is a crucial step forward in fighting homelessness. For decades we’ve had a system that fails too many homeless people by turning them away from help when they need it most.
“The Act will give councils a legal duty to give people meaningful support to resolve their homelessness and will introduce measures to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place.
“To truly make a success of the Act, the government must fully support local councils in its roll out. And the Act alone won’t end homelessness for everyone. Other measures, including getting the recently announced Homelessness Task Force up and running, and developing a long-term cross-government homelessness strategy, will also be essential if we are to put an end to the misery and injustice of homelessness for good.”
England has a population of 54 million. In comparison with the rest of the world we are a prosperous and a generous people. So it is a most welcome and overdue change that in 2018 nobody will be refused a roof over their head.