Something quite extraordinary happened last night. At the mayoral debate on housing and homelessness, the three main parties’ candidates for London Mayor all signed up to an ambitious target to end rough sleeping in the capital by the end of the mayoral term in 2012.
They were speaking at a mayoral debate on housing and homelessness held jointly by Crisis, the National Housing Federation, Shelter and St Mungo’s and responding to a plea from audience member and former rough sleeper Jamie McCoy.
In an evening of some disagreement elsewhere on housing issues, the three candidates were in unison on the 2012 target. It is not the first time that we have seen targets on rough sleeping. Ten years ago the New Labour Government announced that it aimed to reduce the numbers of rough sleepers across the country by two thirds and then get as close to zero as possible.
The government met the first part of the target - reducing the numbers of people sleeping rough by two thirds. But progress then flatlined and since 2003 there has been little further reduction. The latest official figures from one night counts indicate that there are around 500 people sleeping rough on any one night in England and around half are in London, but we also know that over the whole year, 3,000 people sleep rough in the capital.
I am encouraged that the candidates last night publically committed themselves to putting rough sleeping to bed for good in the capital, especially because housing and homelessness is one area where the approach that the mayor takes can make a huge difference. The target cannot be reached in isolation in London. That’s why we need central government also to admit that the current approach is not working any more and, like the mayoral candidates, to set ambitious targets once again.
Of course targets are only useful if followed by action. Rough sleeping, like all forms of homelessness, is a complex problem needing a sophisticated approach. The story of Jamie, who challenged the candidates last night, illustrates this. After years of rough sleeping Jamie needed more than just a roof – he needed help with drug addiction and support to get back into learning so that he could build a stable life.
We also need to remember that helping rough sleepers off the streets is the first step in ending homelessness - not the end of the journey. There are around 400,000 hidden homeless people in the UK, living in living in hostels, temporary bed and breakfast accommodation, squats or sleeping on the floors of friends and family.
Building more social rented accommodation – crucially with the support for those who need it - is key to tackling homelessness and other housing need and this was an area last night where some differences in approach emerged. Ken Livingstone made clear his housing priority lay in tackling the chronic shortfall in social rented housing, Brian Paddick in more affordable rented accommodation for all, and Boris Johnson talked more about his plans to help “people in the middle” get on the housing ladder. I felt that none of the candidates convincingly showed that they understood the extent to which providing housing is only a small part of the solution to homelessness.
In our latest campaign, Crisis has called on the Government – and in London the mayor - to put rough sleeping to bed for good and we have outlined the kind of measures that are needed to achieve this. For the sake of all those Jamies who are still on the streets, I hope that this year’s mayoral election is just the beginning of extraordinary change for today’s rough sleepers.
Leslie Morphy is chief executive of Crisis
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