Overcrowded hostels and expensive B&Bs can lead to people sleeping on the streets. Photo: Getty
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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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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