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The number of people sleeping rough in London is nothing short of a disgrace

And it won't change while we have a Conservative in City Hall. 

By Tom Copley

Before Christmas my colleague Jennette Arnold and I joined the St Mungo’s Broadway homelessness team on one of their regular outreach sessions across the London Borough of Islington.

It was a very informative experience, and the utter dedication of the people in the sector and the kindness with which they approach their job is always incredibly humbling.

But rough sleeping has been getting worse in London over recent years.

In the year before Boris Johnson was elected Mayor, around 3,000 people were seen sleeping rough in the capital. This has more than doubled to over 7,500 last year, despite the Mayor’s pledge in 2008 to end rough sleeping by the time of the London Olympics.

To a degree, this rise in the recorded number of people sleeping rough is explained by the improved outreach from charities such as St Mungo’s Broadway and others, who have so brilliantly led the response to rough sleeping in this city. But fundamentally, it is recognised that we have seen a major increase in the number of people finding themselves on the street.

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When quizzed about the rise in Homelessness recently Boris Johnson put blame for his failure to end rough sleeping down to the increase in EU migrants. Look at the figures though and whilst yes, there has been a significant increase in European rough sleepers, at the same time the number of UK nationals sleeping rough on London’s streets has also almost doubled (up 88 per cent) since Boris became Mayor.                                                        

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That meant over 1,500 more British citizens sleeping rough on London’s streets last year compared to when Boris took office. Clearly the Mayor would have people believe that the only reason rough sleeping is rising is the EU. That’s just not the case and should be no excuse for Boris’ approach of burying his head in the sand.

Tackling the root causes behind rough sleeping is crucial, but it’s not easy. What is instantly obvious when you meet people sleeping rough is that this problem cannot be solved if it is viewed simply through the narrow prism of housing policy. It is not just a problem of having too few homes. The response needs to be multifaceted.

One man we met at a No Second Night Out centre had ended up sleeping rough after he lost his job and was subsequently sanctioned by the benefits office, missed his rent payments and was evicted by his landlord. A political discourse which brands people “benefits scroungers” is contributing to the dehumanisation of people who have fallen on hard times and, yes, who have sometimes made mistakes. But should the price of missing a meeting at a JobCentre appointment really be sleeping on the streets?

Another, a refugee of the oppressive regime in Eritrea, is working, but now lives on the streets. We took him to one of the No Second Night Out Centres, and he is now hopefully on a path to getting permanent accommodation.

We met a number of others, some of which are experiencing drink, drug and mental health problems. People with complex health and social needs require rehabilitation if we truly want to ensure that they are able to reintegrate into society, and fulfil their potential.

While not indicative of most people living on the streets, it is perhaps surprising that a small number have made an active choice to live there. A Romanian man I met works to provide for his wife and four children back home, sleeping on the streets in order to cut down on his outgoings and send more money home. It’s a level of commitment to his family that in some respects is hugely admirable, but ultimately he needs to know that putting himself in such a dangerous situation is not acceptable. The average age of death for a person sleeping rough is just 47 years. Voluntarily putting yourself in such a position is life threatening.

The people we met in just one night demonstrate that there is no ‘typical’ rough sleeper. Our policy responses have to reflect that.

In my view, the Mayor has a mixed record on rough sleeping. Undoubtedly, the No Second Night Out initiative, and the infrastructure that exists to support it, will be Boris’ greatest legacy on homelessness when he steps down in May. It has genuinely been a positive and proactive attempt to tackle the problem.

However, the figures don’t lie, and the action being undertaken by the Mayor is clearly insufficient to meet the challenges that we face.

Firstly, while the Mayor’s focus is on preventing people spending more than one night on the streets, we have still seen these numbers rising year-on-year – both in terms of people returning to the streets and those living there permanently. Since his target to end rough sleeping by 2012 was so woefully missed, it seems that the determination, leadership and innovation needed to address rough sleeping have drained away from City Hall.

From spending cuts to welfare reform, the Mayor has pretty much given wholesale support to government policies that have made the problem much worse. We know that the amount of funding available from the boroughs to support those in housing crisis has fallen dramatically over recent years as this money is now being used to plug gaps in other essential services. This has starved many organisations of essential funding and led to a reduction in bed spaces across the capital. Cuts to social security entitlements – when interacting with the higher housing costs in London – have also made it more difficult for people to move out of hostels and other supported accommodation and into stable housing, creating a backlog in many services that has made it more difficult to take people off the streets.

While I suspect any Mayor would have struggled to drive down the numbers since 2010, Boris Johnson has brought forward some positive measures to deal with a problem while supporting policies that exacerbated it.

We need to take a much more holistic approach to the problem and to enable City Hall and its partners in the boroughs and third sector to take on far greater power to address rough sleeping. We also need to recognise that for many, this will require expensive, difficult and time consuming rehabilitation. It is also likely that progress will not be linear. We therefore need a social security system that fully respects the different challenges that many face – particularly when it comes to issues such as sanctions and the requirements to seek employment immediately.

There is a stark but unavoidable choice here: either you invest significant funds in addressing the individual, complex needs of people who sleep rough, or you accept that they will probably always be on the streets. I hope we will choose the former.

It’s almost clichéd to say it, but the number of people sleeping rough in London should be considered a national embarrassment. We need City Hall to act, and a Mayor who has the political will to tackle rough sleeping.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Inside Housing.