Here in Bethnal Green, I hardly notice the rough sleepers anymore. Just to be clear, there are lots of them. And judging by the furtive, manic air with which they pace up and down the street, some are clearly addicted to drugs or alcohol. But they have become a permanent fixture of my street. I have grown so used to them that they no longer shock and appal me in quite the way they ought to.
I often assume, as I carefully step over them, that the person in question must be suffering from “personal issues” – or maybe even a surfeit of personal responsibility. According to research published in 2017 by the London housing and support charity Evolve, more than a quarter (29 per cent) of Londoners believe that people sleeping rough are to blame for their predicament. Three quarters (74 per cent) surveyed said that rough sleepers could get themselves off the streets if they wanted to.
And as Jack London wrote in The People of the Abyss, his early 20th-century book on the homeless of his day scratching out a living in the East End: “Having located the responsibility, society goes contentedly on about its own affairs.”
These sort of rationalisations, often automatic and imbibed from the wider culture, allow us to sidestep uncomfortable truths as we step over ragged human bodies, such as the fact most rough sleepers are the product of wider economic currents. Such attitudes are also at the socially acceptable end of a spectrum which extends to a view of the homeless as not quite human: as feral, ragged nomads undeserving of civilised treatment. Around a third of rough sleepers have been deliberately hit, kicked or had things thrown at them. Nearly one in ten has been urinated upon.
Nevertheless, the statistics bear out that homelessness ebbs and flows quite dramatically with fluctuations in government policy. The previous Labour government reduced rough sleeping significantly during its three terms in office. Between 1999 and 2002 there was a two-thirds reduction in rough sleeping. Thanks to a genuine political willingness to tackle the blight of “cardboard cities” that had become a feature of city life during the Thatcher and Major years, 1,147 homeless people were taken off the streets in a relatively short period of time.
By contrast, since Labour left office in 2010 there has been a steep rise in homelessness. Between 2010 and 2019 there was a 165 per cent increase in the number of people sleeping rough in England. Prior to the pandemic there were an estimated 4,677 people sleeping rough. This is based on a count taken on a single night each year, though homelessness charities say the real figure is far higher. Council data found that almost 25,000 people slept rough in 2019. Moreover, the charity Crisis has estimated that there are around 9,100 hidden homeless – ie people who squat or sofa-surf – in the UK as a whole.
The Conservatives have spent the past decade seeking to avoid responsibility for the crisis that has occurred on their watch. Sajid Javid, the chancellor at the time, told Sky News in 2019 that Labour was “responsible for the massive rise in homelessness”.
It isn’t difficult to establish that Javid’s claims are nonsense, nor to locate the policies that are actually responsible for the precipitous rise in homelessness since 2010. Government cuts to local authority budgets, benefit cuts, the introduction of Universal Credit (which can take five weeks to come through), together with rampant house price inflation, have all left many people destitute.
The ending of private sector tenancies is now the biggest driver of homelessness in England according to the National Audit Office. The sell-off of council houses has fuelled a proliferation of buy-to-let landlords charging extortionate rents. Moreover, government changes to the definition of “affordable rent” have allowed housing associations to offer homes for up to 80 per cent of market rents, rather than pegging costs to local incomes.
Last year the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic was shambolic. And yet, its “Everyone In” policy – set up to house rough sleepers during lockdown – offered a glimpse of something better, a rare example of the sort of radical action the moment demanded. The policy saw 15,000 rough sleepers housed in hotels and bed and breakfasts during the first wave of Covid-19.
Everyone In was always going to be a temporary solution. But it did show that a government could take people off the streets if it wanted to – and that the sky wouldn’t fall in as a result. As reported in the recent BBC Radio 4 documentary The Homeless Hostel, of the 500 rough sleepers who passed through a Holiday Inn in Gorton, Manchester, roughly half subsequently moved into supported housing or temporary accommodation. “Those people wouldn’t have had the same opportunity if the pandemic hadn’t come along,” the BBC’s Simon Maybin noted.
Crisis has estimated that it would cost around £282m to permanently rehouse those who were put up last year in hotels and B&Bs. This isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. The cost of a single person sleeping rough in the UK for 12 months is estimated to be £20,128. In 2012 a government paper estimated that the overall cost to the treasury of homelessness in England was up to £1bn a year.
The government has set a target to end rough sleeping by 2024. It is not going to fulfil that ambition. One year on from the end of its much praised Everyone In policy, rough sleeping is back with a vengeance. Statistics from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network show a 21 per cent increase in rough sleeping in London in 2020. Anecdotally, street begging seems worse than ever here in Bethnal Green.
There are signs in other policy areas that Boris Johnson’s government is tentatively breaking with the free-market dogma of recent decades. It should take a similar approach to tackling homelessness. If there is to be a “new normal”, let it be a world in which we don’t casually step over the ragged, underfed person lying in the street as if they were just another item of street furniture.