Brooks Newmark was the MP for Braintree until 2015 and is a former Minister for Civil Society. He now chairs the Centre for Social Justice working group on homelessness.
Homelessness remains a blight on our society. The figures released by the Government recently make for grim reading. In England, rough sleeping on our streets went up 16 per cent over the past year to 4,134. I suspect the figures are much higher in reality.
Over Christmas, I spent a few days working at one of the Crisis at Christmas Centres in London. This was my third year working for Crisis at Christmas. Crisis do an amazing job, as do the thousands of volunteers. This year Crisis at Christmas welcomed 4,500 homeless guests, many of whom were rough sleepers at 14 centres across the UK. With temperatures at almost freezing, Crisis at Christmas is indeed a lifeline for thousands of people, providing support, companionship and vital services over the festive period.
My experience at Crisis was the catalyst for writing a report on Rough Sleeping and Homelessness at the Centre for Social Justice, which I have been working on now for almost a year, with the support of Crisis and an advisory panel of experts drawn from the sector. The report will look at the magnitude of the problem, and will come up with not only costed recommendations to hopefully eradicate the scourge of rough sleeping once and for all, but also to reduce homelessness in general.
The reality is quite stark. Since 2010 there has been a significant jump in the number of people recorded rough sleeping from 1,768 to 4,134, an increase of over 110 per cent. The London CHAIN rough sleeper monitoring data collected by St Mungo’s record the number of people rough sleeping throughout the year, and their figure would indicate that 8,000 individuals experienced rough sleeping in the capital last year.
Many of the rough sleepers I have met over the years often have complex needs, which usually include a combination of family breakdown, mental health, and substance abuse problems. Once on the streets these problems only get worse. Yet as a society over the years we have not tackled this problem effectively. The problem is not too huge. The problem is not insurmountable. It’s just a question of political will.
The Government is beginning to tackle this issue in earnest and have taken two important steps in recent months. One of Theresa May’s first initiatives when she became Prime Minister was to announce a new £40 million programme to both prevent homelessness and reduce rough sleeping. Furthermore, Sajid Javid gave Government support for Bob Blackman’s Homeless Reduction Bill, which had its final reading in the Commons a week ago today. This support for the Bill is an important step in helping address the issue of homelessness.
As the issue of homelessness is a devolved matter, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each have their own solutions to addressing the problem. The Homeless Reduction Bill reflects the Welsh model, as they have made huge strides in tackling homelessness. The focus of the bill is on prevention and creates a new duty of care for local authorities to help anyone eligible and threatened with homelessness within 56 days (and not the current 28 days), regardless of priority need status, local connection or intentionality. I am delighted MPs from all parties supported this Bill.
The report I have been working on over the past year will provide the Government with a clear strategy to help tackle rough sleeping and reduce homelessness. I have had the opportunity to meet with experts both in Europe and the US as well as throughout the United Kingdom. And equally importantly, I have spent a significant amount of time talking to and helping rough sleepers and individuals who have found themselves homeless.
Finland, which seeks to provide support to the homeless 365 days a year with their Housing First model, have all but eradicated rough sleeping and have had a significant impact on reducing homelessness. While the traditional hostel system can provide short term support for many who find themselves temporarily homeless, it does not provide a long-term solution for many rough sleepers who often have complex needs. The Housing First model, I believe, provides such individuals with a stable independent home combined with the personalised support they need to gain access to mental health services, drug and alcohol support, in addition to training for employment when and if they are ready.
Most homeless people I have met want somewhere to live. They want a home. Finding somewhere to live is the first step on their road to recovery as they can begin to resolve their health issues and ultimately find a job so they can make a contribution to society.
The problem is resolvable. It’s just a question of political will. The Prime Minister has said she wants social justice to be a cornerstone of her premiership. One way she can achieve this is to follow words with action – and end the blight of rough sleeping once and for all.