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18 July 2017

Is 2017 the year politicians finally notice homelessness?

The 2017 manifestos were in sharp contrast to those of the 2015 election. 

By Thomas Zagoria

In the last seven years, the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Britain has more than doubled, according to official figures. These numbers are still on the rise, up 16 per cent in the last year. Behind this statistic lie thousands more in shelters and temporary accommodation, with Shelter calculating almost 255,000 people have no permanent home.

In 2017, politicians are finally taking notice. The Homelessness Reduction Act, a private members’ bill proposed by Conservative backbencher Bob Blackman in early 2017, gave local authorities new duties to help secure accommodation and support for people threatened with homelessness regardless of whether they were judged “priority need”. Blackman called the legislation “long overdue”. Importantly, it came with an increase in central government funding of £61m after, in Blackman’s words, “quite a battle with government”.

Many questions remain about the levels of funding. Manchester councillor Beth Knowles called the government contribution “great, but it’s not enough”, as it fell far below the estimates of cost put out by Shelter and others. Yet the consensus across parties and social action groups seems to be that the Act is a welcome first step, and the first sign that the government has noticed again the problem of homelessness.

The Act was swiftly followed by a snap general election. Rather than spending months lobbying political parties ahead of the manifesto launches, advocates for relieving homelessness only had a short spell to translate their many “asks” into definite policies.

They rose to the challenge. The Labour manifesto committed to ending rough sleeping completely within the next parliament, by stopping cuts to hostels and housing benefit and earmarking 4,000 additional homes for people with a history of rough sleeping. Labour’s shadow housing secretary John Healey said: “There’s a powerful sense of outrage within Labour at the rapidly rising level of rough sleeping,” which was in turn “the visible, leading, shameful edge of housing policy failure across the board”.

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The Conservative manifesto, meanwhile, promised to halve the levels of rough sleeping by 2022 (i.e. reduce it to the level it was when they took office), and support a Housing First model of homelessness prevention, modelled off of the system in Finland, which provides for rapid rehousing of homeless people in stable accommodation rather than moving them through a series of shelters and transitional housing programmes.

This cross-party ambition has been welcomed by social action groups. Stephen Robertson, CEO of the Big Issue Foundation, praised MPs for a “humanity and dignity” that “comes before your politics”.  

These manifestos are in sharp contrast to those of the 2015 election. Rough sleeping had already risen dramatically, yet mentions of homelessness at all came few and far between. The only commitment given in 2015 by a major party was in Labour’s manifesto, with a commitment to “reversing this trend” [of rough sleeping]. It was a far cry from abolishing it completely.

The difference between 2015 and 2017 goes deeper than national manifesto commitments. Robertson points to some local authorities recently acting on a larger scale to provide housing for homeless people, in contrast to “12, 18 months ago when loads of organisations were just putting spikes down to stop [rough sleepers] being near their organisation”. Blackman agrees that “between 2010 and 2015 the attitude was less sympathetic to homeless people than it is now. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that”.

What changed? For the manifestos specifically, Jacqui McCluskey, director of policy and communications at Homeless Link, points to the effect of joint lobbying by social action groups in the lead-up to the 2017 election. Rather than lobby individually for different policies on homelessness, she says, organisations concentrated on pushing for a manifesto commitment on ending rough sleeping. This collective targeting of a single goal was evidently a successful strategy.

More broadly, there seems to have been a change in the political winds (perhaps a shift in the Overton Window). Within the Labour Party, the Campaign to End Homelessness was founded in 2015. According to the chair, Sam Stopp: “A home is a basic right in the same way that having access to healthcare free at the point of use is a basic right.” More recently, Andy Burnham was elected as Manchester mayor on a platform of ending rough sleeping by 2020, with a strategy which included donating part of his salary to the cause

Homelessness may also be another facet of British life to be touched by the “Corbyn effect”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the MP for the London constituency of Islington North, has long campaigned for affordable housing. Stopp, who didn’t support Jeremy Corbyn in either leadership contest, acknowledged rough sleeping was an issue “that had probably fallen off the agenda for a bit, so I’d have to credit Corbyn to a pretty large degree, really, for raising the issue in the consciousness.” Labour’s gains during the election were often strongest in urban areas in southern England (which also have most of the highest per capita rates of rough sleeping).

Within the Conservatives, shifts were also apparent. Theresa May has adopted a different approach to her predecessor. While during David Cameron’s term in office, “the Prime Minister of the day and Number 10 weren’t exactly falling over themselves to support it”, according to Blackman, this changed “with the advent of a new Prime Minister, and a new regime, that was far more positive to the concept and in fact the detail.”

Whatever the reasons behind it, homelessness appears to have returned to the political agenda. Fears remain about whether promises will be carried through, especially given the absence of homelessness in the Queen’s Speech. While politicians are recognising it as a political issue, there are fears that it won’t be enough.

Recently, the Grenfell Tower fire has demonstrated that giving people a roof over their heads doesn’t guarantee safety or quality of life. Joe Beswick from the Radical Housing Network says that “homes are increasingly becoming assets, rather than places to live”, leading to enormous housing inequality. This is not a fact that is unrecognised by all political actors. Corbyn himself, as a backbencher, warned in a parliamentary debate in 1993 against measures “introduced not out of any deep concern for the problems of London’s homeless” but only intended “to get them out of sight and out of mind.” Politicians from all parties must be wary of repeating this.

As Stopp puts it, “when you’re talking about ending homelessness, you’re really talking about the causes of inequality.” Challenging this is a far more ambitious undertaking.

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