Overcrowded hostels and expensive B&Bs can lead to people sleeping on the streets. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Life in limbo: what it’s like to be one of Britain’s hidden homeless

The threat of people losing their home if they rent is at its highest level in more than a decade.

Rob is trying to raise money for a room tonight. The hostels are full, the ones that haven’t closed down, and he doesn’t have enough for a B&B. It’s been a difficult day again. 

“I’m really tired,” he says. “I got soaked in the rain today and my feet were soaking because I’m wearing shoes with holes in them and can’t afford to buy a pair. My clothes are dirty because I can’t afford to wash them. I had to use a food voucher to get something to eat today. I feel completely humiliated, and the council doesn’t care.”

Rob, 40, went into rent arrears when his council stopped his housing benefit for “failing to occupy his property” (a claim he denies). He was given an eviction notice at Christmas and he was homeless by the New Year. For the past six months, he’s been finding a place to sleep on a day-to-day basis. He tries for B&Bs but they’re expensive – £140 a week. Rob has Crohn’s disease and diabetes, and hostels, cramped and dirty, make him worse. Other nights he goes to family for help – difficult conversations with loved ones on low incomes themselves – or he has to sleep on the street.

“Each day is a fight for survival just to get somewhere to stay and something to eat. I’ve not had a proper nights rest for seven months,” he says. “I had to go past my old home a few days ago. It was an emotional experience, going past it, and knowing that’s not my home anymore.”

The threat of people losing their home if they rent is at its highest level in more than a decade, official figures from the Ministry of Justice show. Benefit changes, including the introduction of the bedroom tax, and an increase in sanctions, such as housing benefit being suspended, are driving up the number being threatened with eviction. Rob was one of 31,000 people in social housing who received a notice to seek possession at the start of this year. That’s 525 a day.

“Housing benefit is a safety net and for many it’s all that stands between them and homelessness,” says Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis. “Homelessness has been on the rise for the last three years. Rough sleeping in particular has risen steeply and by a massive 75 per cent in London. Harsh cuts to housing benefits and a lack of affordable housing have taken a heavy toll.” 

Rob has been getting reduced housing benefit as he waits for a tribunal to appeal the council’s decision to stop the benefit entirely, but it’s only a third of what he needs to pay for a B&B room each night. His long-term illness means he has muscle weakness and exhaustion, as well as pain, and he receives Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) as he’s unable to work. His benefits aren’t enough to pay for both a room in temporary accommodation every night and food, so often it’s a choice between the two.

“ESA doesn’t cover half the costs of B&Bs. It barely covers my food budget,” he says. “I looked for work the other day, even though I’m not fit for work and there was nothing but voluntary jobs. That or part time work, six, eight hours a week. I have to eat every few hours to maintain normal blood sugar but I’m over my food bank limit and I’ve used all my food vouchers.

His health problems are getting worse.     

“I’ve lost a lot of weight,” he says. “The meal I had a few days ago was the first proper meal I’ve had in months.  I’ve had hypos with my diabetes in front of them [people from the council] due to lack of food left to starve basically, not once, but week after week.”

Moving from a hostel to a friend’s sofa every night, no certainty of where you’ll sleep or whether you can eat, is a unique strain on the mind and body, even for someone without a disability or long-term illness.  It can also see a person fall out of the system entirely.

“My doctors weren’t going to allow me to go to hospital to see the diabetic specialist because I don’t have a permanent address,” Rob says. “The council won’t help me. They say they have no duty of care.”

Authorities do not have a duty to secure accommodation for all homeless people (pdf). They only have an absolute duty to secure accommodation for households who are deemed to be unintentionally homeless as well as being in priority need (such as, families with children or someone with a disability).

Rob’s tribunal is next week. He’s sent away the paperwork and is now left hoping a successful appeal over his housing benefit will be the beginning of getting a home.

“Legal aid cuts mean I’ve had minimal help preparing,” he adds.

The government is aware of the swathes of people like Rob appealing “incorrect” council homelessness decisions. Their solution, as far, is to invite private companies to bid for a £4.5m housing advice contract that’ll deliver support, advice and training for front line housing staff from October this year to March 2016. The move comes after a number of high profile legal challenges against councils’ homelessness decisions. Last month, Croydon Council agreed to pay a homeless family £1,475 after breaking the law by keeping them in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than seven months. 

It’s been clear for some time B&Bs are becoming a part of what constitutes housing in this country. Temporary accommodation is not just the destination for those who’ve fallen out of the system like Rob but, for some councils, a form of housing provision. There are almost 60,000 homeless households living in temporary accommodation, including B&Bs, according to the most recent figures issued by the Government (at the end of December 2013). In the first two years of the Coalition, the number of families with children in a B&B for more than six weeks went up by 331 per cent. The lack of affordable housing, with ever-growing social housing waiting lists, means it is difficult to know whether this is local authorities failing or finding a desperate solution. It speaks to the scale of the problem, though, that some councils are not even providing this basic level of help. Back in 2011, as cuts started to hit, the Local Government Ombudsman was already investigating more than 300 complaints a year from people claiming to have been denied access to even temporary accommodation. The complaints suggested that “people who face homelessness do not always receive the help that they are entitled to from councils”, it said.

People like Rob, meanwhile, pushed outside the council’s duty of care, are increasingly finding themselves in our very modern sort of homelessness; scrabbling for money for a room for one night, living between the street and hostels and out of B&Bs.

“It’s draining surviving day to day when your money runs out. I have no security or peace of mind,” Rob says. “The B&B is very basic. It’s hellish on a weekend with the stag parties because you can’t sleep for the noise. There’s a communal shower here but not a bath and I’ve been dying to take a bath for months because it’s the only thing that helps with the pains I get in my legs.”

His contact with the council has amounted to suggestions of local hostels.

“They’ve tried to push me into a hostel, so they can dump me there, and say well you’ve got accommodation now so you don’t need a home,” he says. “I’ve stayed in a hostel before. Drug users and alcoholics shouting in the middle night. It was dirty, the beds were filthy and covered in urine and other stains. There was cigarette ash everywhere, cold water, no heating on.” 

“Rough sleeping is only part of the picture of homelessness,” confirms Morphy at Crisis. “Out of sight of the official statistics, many more people are struggling in hidden situations – on the streets or in squats, in hostels or sleeping on the sofas of friends or family.”

The problem of homelessness – and this country’s response to it – goes beyond some spikes on the ground. More than 100,000 people have been barred from housing waiting lists since councils were granted powers to change their allocations policies, according to research by Inside Housing. The ones granted the privilege of being someone their council has a legal duty to help are left to wait; more homeless people than homes. The coalition has cut housing benefit as local councils have cut homelessness services. In the first two years of this government, 2,206 bed spaces in hostels and other accommodation services were lost.  On an average night, 83 per cent of services now don’t have a single empty bed.  These people, pushed through the ever-gaping safety net, are the faceless forgotten.

“I’ve seen a lot more people sleeping rough lately,” Rob tells me. “Sometimes I try to offer them advice of places to go to try and get help in being rehoused but they tell me they’re on waiting lists. The waiting lists are getting longer by the day.”

“I saw a young girl the other day, maybe 16, 17 years old and in quite a distressed state,” he says. “She was sitting in the rain begging for change. I gave her half a sandwich I’d bought but felt bad I couldn’t do more for her.”

“I was hoping to see a flat today but got a call to say it had been given to a family. Another one I wanted to look at, the landlord waited until today to tell me that the deposit is £1,000. More and more landlords are refusing people who get benefits so it’s really hard to find anything to apply for,” he says. “I feel trapped. It feels like I’m never going to get of this situation no matter what I do and that I’m just wasting time fighting all these people the council, the Jobcenter, the government.” 

We speak again a couple of weeks later; eleven more days and nights of trying to piece together enough money for a room. The DWP have falsely stopped Rob’s ESA payments and his barely-there income has gone.

“They quickly reinstated them but said it will be a week before I have any money to my name,” he says. “They said they didn’t know I was homeless and had no address even though I told them six months ago. I went to Citizens Advice Bureau to ask them try and get the DWP to give me hardship loan. They tried but DWP refused. I’m a bit lost for words because every day when I think things are bad as they can possibly get, there’s some new problem that’s worse than the last one.”  

“I just don’t think I can keep going on like this, I’ve had six months of my life completely wiped out, and the people responsible are all getting on with their lives while mine is in ruins. I’ve got more grey hairs in six months than the last five years. I told myself last week, this is the last week I’m doing this I can’t keep fighting to survive every day. I feel like I’m living in the third world.” 

“I’m just past exhausted with it all,” he says. “I can’t believe almost half the year’s gone and my whole life is being taken up with trying to survive.”

“I want a long rest now, I need it,” he adds. “I just want a long bath, and a long rest in a comfortable bed.”

Rob tweets his experience of homelessness here @wordsofdjc

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.