Home­less­ness has surged for seven years. And it’s clear who’s to blame John Har­ris

The Tories’ cold, ru­inous poli­cies have seen rough sleep­ing soar. Univer­sal credit will add to the mis­ery

The Guardian - - JOURNAL -

From the knuck­les up­wards, at least three of his fin­gers were miss­ing. Frost­bite last win­ter, he said. Some of his toes had gone too. Some­one had found him un­con­scious with hy­pother­mia, and he had spent months in hospi­tal be­fore once again liv­ing on the street. He said he needed £17 for a one-night stay in a hos­tel: I gave him a fiver and some cig­a­rettes, and we talked some more.

I was in Manch­ester, cov­er­ing the Con­ser­va­tive party con­fer­ence. With work over for the day, I had gone for din­ner in the city’s so-called North­ern Quar­ter, where peo­ple eat and drink in self-con­sciously fash­ion­able bars and restau­rants, and a steady stream of home­less peo­ple tend to cir­cu­late, ask­ing for help.

The man sit­ting next to me at an out­door ta­ble was a case in point. Un­til a few years ago, he said, he had lived with his mother in Wythen­shawe, on the south­ern edge of the city. When she had died, their so­cial-hous­ing ten­ancy had ended, and when he had lost his last job ev­ery­thing had fallen to pieces.

When I got home, I was re­minded that the vis­cer­ally hu­man story he had told me was in line with re­search and statis­tics: 83% of sin­gle home­less peo­ple are reck­oned to be men. The av­er­age age of death among home­less peo­ple is es­ti­mated to be 47, around 30 years below the fig­ure for the pop­u­la­tion as a whole.

The scourge of home­less­ness and rough sleep­ing has been grow­ing at speed. A snap­shot count by the Na­tional Au­dit Of­fice in au­tumn 2016 sug­gested that just over 4,100 peo­ple in Eng­land were sleep­ing rough, a fig­ure that had in­creased by a mas­sive 134% since 2010. At the same point, the num­ber of house­holds in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion was reck­oned to be 77,000, up 60% in six years.

Some of these fig­ures look like un­der­es­ti­mates. In Greater Manch­ester, home­less­ness is said to have quadru­pled since 2010. Home­less­ness char­ity Cri­sis es­ti­mates that in 2016 rough sleep­ing in the UK av­er­aged around 9,000. What re­ally mat­ters, though, is that all of these prob­lems are set to get much worse. A re­cent study by aca­demics at He­riot-Watt Uni­ver­sity in Scot­land said that if gov­ern­ment pol­icy re­mains as it is now, the num­ber of home­less peo­ple in Bri­tain will reach 575,000 by 2041, up from 236,000 in 2016. Over the same pe­riod, the num­ber of peo­ple sleep­ing rough could top 40,000.

Lit­tle more than a year ago, the of­fi­cial ap­proach to home­less­ness was still often stuck in a rut of puni­tive mea­sures and ap­par­ent in­hu­man­ity: coun­cils im­pos­ing fines for beg­ging and rough sleep­ing, and end­less talk of crack­downs and zero tol­er­ance. Now, though, ac­com­pa­nied by a clear sense of po­lit­i­cal panic, there are the first signs of a thaw, not least at the top.

Yes­ter­day, Theresa May re­turned to Manch­ester to seem­ingly ex­or­cise the ghost of that aw­ful con­fer­ence speech, and an­nounce a £3.8m con­tri­bu­tion to some­thing called the “Greater Manch­ester Home­less­ness Preven­tion Trail­blazer” – a means of show­ing her ap­proval for a new ar­ray of mea­sures aimed at get­ting lon­glast­ing help to the re­gion’s home­less peo­ple, many of them au­thored by Greater Manch­ester’s new Labour mayor, Andy Burn­ham.

Mean­while, par­lia­ment has re­cently passed the Home­less­ness Re­duc­tion Act, which will sup­pos­edly en­sure that coun­cils have in­creased obli­ga­tions to home­less peo­ple, not least when it comes to the sin­gle-per­son house­holds who cur­rently tend to fall through the net, or what re­mains of it.

Clearly, all this is proof that home­less­ness is newly in­trud­ing on pol­i­tics, but it jars against two un­avoid­able ques­tions. First, as ev­i­denced by its mea­gre new pledges on so­cial hous­ing, why does the gov­ern­ment still seem largely fo­cused on symp­toms, rather than causes? And when it comes to the lat­ter, who is ul­ti­mately to blame?

The an­swer is ter­ri­bly sim­ple, em­bod­ied in the fact that all those home­less­ness statis­tics show a surge that be­gan in 2010. The Con­ser­va­tive party has long had a streak of cold cru­elty, and the ob­scen­i­ties of cur­rent home­less­ness are the re­sult.

Where to even start? Of course, if you cut and cap ben­e­fits, leave a snow­balling hous­ing cri­sis un­touched and fail to ques­tion the spe­cious morals of the mar­ket, it will have hu­man costs. When, as chan­cel­lor, Ge­orge Os­borne started slash­ing hous­ing sub­si­dies, hack­ing down hous­ing ben­e­fit and re­strict­ing sin­gle peo­ple un­der 35 to the mean­est of en­ti­tle­ments, where did he think it would all end up?

The an­swer is stark: Shel­ter reck­ons that 78% of the rise in home­less­ness over the last six years was due to peo­ple be­ing evicted from pri­vately rented homes, but that did not give any­one in power pause for thought.

Since 2016, rates of hous­ing ben­e­fit paid to peo­ple in the pri­vate sec­tor – set ac­cord­ing to what’s called the lo­cal hous­ing al­lowance, which the Tory/Lib Dem coali­tion pegged to the low­est third of lo­cal mar­ket rents, rather than the pre­vi­ous low­est half – have been frozen, while rents have car­ried on ris­ing, not least in cities.

Worse still, from March 2019 the same lim­its will ap­ply to hous­ing ben­e­fit go­ing to peo­ple liv­ing in so­cial hous­ing, which pro­fes­sion­als say will have a dire im­pact on one group in par­tic­u­lar: again, sin­gle peo­ple un­der 35. If they are lucky enough to live alone in, say, a onebed­room flat in a tower block, they will sud­denly have to find ac­com­mo­da­tion in the kind of shared houses that are lamentably thin on the ground. Not for the first time, you’d think you were look­ing at a pol­icy de­signed specif­i­cally to in­crease home­less­ness.

The im­pact of ben­e­fit sanc­tions barely needs men­tion­ing. And now comes univer­sal credit, al­ready rolled out in ar­eas scat­tered across the coun­try, and now set to be ex­tended even fur­ther be­fore its full in­tro­duc­tion in 2022.

Pri­vate land­lords are al­ready re­fus­ing to let prop­er­ties to peo­ple in re­ceipt of the new ben­e­fit, for fear of their ten­ants go­ing into ar­rears. Coun­cils and hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tions say that the manda­tory six-week gap be­tween mak­ing a claim and re­ceiv­ing a first pay­ment is lead­ing to huge prob­lems, and evic­tions di­rectly re­lated to the new sys­tem are al­ready un­der way.

Cuts to the so-called work­ing al­lowance will leave many peo­ple thou­sands of pounds a year worse off. There is pal­pa­ble anx­i­ety about the most aw­ful of out­comes: life in emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion, or, if lives truly fall apart, on the street.

In Manch­ester, Burn­ham says univer­sal credit threat­ens to dou­ble his re­gion’s num­ber of rough sleep­ers. “If the roll­out goes ahead as planned it will make our prob­lem dra­mat­i­cally worse,” he says.

The words have an air of un­in­ten­tional un­der­state­ment, but they high­light two of 2017’s big­gest sto­ries: on the streets of our cities, ev­ery­day mat­ters of life and death. And in White­hall, a gov­ern­ment seem­ingly lost in its own cru­el­ties.

Alamy

Peo­ple sleep­ing rough in Mar­ble Arch, cen­tral Lon­don Lee Thomas/

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