ConservativeHome recently ran a series on this site with the Centre for Social Justice. It consisted of an article a day about one of “five giants”: modern equivalents of Beveridge’s Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance and Disease.
These were: worklessness, educational underachievement, mental health, homelessness, and serious personal debt (plus, for the Saturday article, domestic abuse).
None of these giants is easy to slay, but the Government is committed to ending one of them – or, to be more precise, an aspect of one of them: rough sleeping.
The Conservative Manifesto declares that “we will…end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as the Rough Sleeping Initiative and Housing First, and working to bring together local services to meet the health and housing needs of people sleeping on the streets”.
The Government has come very close to doing so already – but in circumstances so peculiar and temporary as to cast light on how the pledge might be fulfilled during the rest of this Parliament.
These were, of course, those of the original Coronavirus lockdown, during which Ministers applied an “Everyone In” strategy to get rough sleepers off the streets and lessen the risk of them catching Covid-19.
In his article for us as part of the series, Brooks Newmark reported that this required finding accommodation for 30,000 rough sleepers and sofa surfers within the space of a few weeks.
The task might have been impossible in normal times (at least without requisitioning property), but in that exceptional one there were the spaces to hand: in hotels and hostels closed for business under the shutdown rules.
But Brooks’ figures from London suggested that the number of rough sleepers across England is now heading back to pre-original lockdown levels.
Overall, Government statistics show that these climbed from 1,768 sleeping rough on a single night in 2010 to a peak of 4,751 in 2017, declining to 4,266 last autumn.
For reference, “people sleeping rough are defined as those sleeping or about to bed down in open air locations and other places including tents and make-shift shelters”.
So those figures do not include people in hostels or shelters, sofa surfers, squatter or traveller campsites, or “those in recreational or organised protest”.
Part of the reason for the drop during the last two years will have been one of Theresa May’s first initiatives as Prime Minister – a £40 million programme to tackle homelessness.
Another aspect will have been Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Act, which placed new duties on local authorities in England to prevent and relieve homelessness.
The May and Boris Johnson governments followed all this up with a Rough Sleeping Strategy in August 2018 and a delivery plan in December 2018, with £100 million in funding committed for two years.
The twin pillars of the Government’s plan are the Next Steps Accommodation and Housing First programmes. The first is concentrated on property; the second on people.
Next Steps Accommodation Programme has £91.5 million set aside for temporary accommodation and £150 million for 3,300 homes.
Housing First is being trialled in Liverpool, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and the All Party Parliamentary Group is undertaking an independent review.
At its core is the provision of a stable home and personalised support “to homeless people with multiple and complex needs”.
As the House of Commons Library notes, “a disproportionate number of rough sleepers have experienced institutional life, such as being in local authority care, prison or the armed forces”.
A London analysis by CHAIN found that 50 per cent of those assessed were in need of support for their mental health, 42 per cent for alcohol dependency, and 41 per cent for drug dependency.
The Centre for Social Justice recommended in a 2017 report, Housing First, that the Housing First programme be scaled up to £110 million a year over the course of a Parliament.
The Conservative Manifesto pledge looks deliverable, but that price tag poses the first of several questions about whether it actually will be.
£110 million a year is the best part of half a billion pounds over the course of a Parliament. Where will that money come from, as the deficit soars towards an estimated 19 per cent of GDP this year?
The CSJ’s answer is that such a total shows you only what the taxpayer puts in rather what he also gets back, in the savings that follow once a homeless person is off the street, off hard drugs, in a home – and working.
So it is that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated in the Centre for Social Justice’s Report that there was a saving to the Government of £2.40 for every £1.00 spent as part of Housing First.
However, the saving inevitably follows the spending, and the Treasury always wants not to spend now at a time of retrenchment (and usually at other times too).
Mind you, the Chancellor was not exactly in penny-pinching mode in his recent Spending Review statement, announcing that Government spending will rise at its fastest rate for 15 years.
So if the dash for growth on which he appears to be set succeeds, he might well be able to meet that CSJ total. If it doesn’t, he certainly won’t.
But there are other problems in achieving that target of abolishing rough sleeping, concentrated roughly in the areas of work, housing itself and elibigibility.
On work, Harry Phibbs has quoted the Government’s homelessness adviser, Jeremy Swain, as follows: “what we need to be doing, as well as getting people into housing, is to get people into work. And that is what they are wanting”.
The economic background against which to do so could scarcely be more challenging, with mass unemployment back for the first time in the best part of 30 years.
The Government could encourage and incentivise employers to take on homeless people, but that would risk protests from other people, many on low incomes, who are also seeking jobs.
The same consideration applies to housing, where one of the five proposals from the voluntary sector is enabling rapid access to both secure private and social rent tenancies.
Which would mean guidance to social housing providers stating that they should prioritise people facing homelessness. Pushing one group further up a queue means pulling another lower down.
And there will always be a queue – since the supply of housing is necessarily limited. Then there is welfare eligibility. The voluntary sector wants a temporary suspension of both the no recourse to public funds conditions for 12 months, and a suspension of the habitual residence test.
This reflects the fact that, according to the Government’s figures, 26 per cent of rough sleepers last year were non-UK nationals, with a further ten per cent being of unknown national origin.
Advent began yesterday, December 1 falls tomorrow, and the pre-Christmas season always sees a run of newspaper features, like this one, about rough sleeping.
But the Government is unlikely to fulfill its manifesto pledge unless voters maintain that level of interest all year round. Because it can be done, but only by prioritising that promise. And Ministers would need public backing to do that.