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20 December 2018

The United Kingdom’s homelessness crisis is a predictable consequence of government policy

Since 2010 the government has made two choices: to cut public spending and to make sure that those cuts don’t touch Tory voters.

By Stephen Bush

For the second time this year, one of the people sleeping rough outside the entrance to the Tube station by the Houses of Parliament has died. Both were men: which is what we’d expect as men are more likely to end up sleeping rough and 84 per cent of the estimated 597 homeless people who died in 2017 were men.

Gyula Remes was close to the statistical average of a dead homeless person: 43 years old, living in a city centre, and working. His death is surprising only because it underlines the extent of the government’s political failure over rough sleeping: that the Conservative government can’t even get to grips with the problem when it happens under a Tory-run local authority in a location where it causes maximum political embarrassment.

James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Communities, Local Government and Housing, tried to claim this week that the rise in rough sleeping since 2010 – the homelessness charity Crisis estimates that it has increased by 98 per cent since the Conservatives took office – was down not to government policy but to problems of drug addiction, family breakdown and LGBT teenagers and young people being kicked out by homophobic relatives.

These are all undoubtedly issues that help exacerbate homelessness – both in terms of people who end up sleeping rough in cars, on the streets or in tents and in terms of the “hidden homeless”, that is to say, people sleeping on sofas and otherwise moving between the kindness of friends and co-workers.

It’s true that many of the hidden homeless tend to be one half of a separating couple, where one half of the relationship, usually but not always the man, moves out of the shared home, starts sleeping at friends or on the sofa. Sometimes, these people then move from sofa-surfing to rough sleeping, due to falling out with the people they stay with, embarrassment at taking so long to get back on their feet, or for other reasons. Sometimes, family breakdown can lead to a new partner falling out with, or actively forcing out, the teenage children of their new partner, who end up on the streets.

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It is true, too, to say that issues of addiction are part of why people move from sofa-surfing to rough sleeping, though it is also true to say that many people become drug addicts – largely to legal highs like cut-price beer rather than illegal highs – on the streets.

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And it is also true that when young people come out to their parents they risk violence, eviction or other threats that may lead to those young people ending up on the streets.

But it strains credulity to beyond breaking point to claim that a LGBT teenager became more likely to be evicted from their parents’ home just as our government’s hue changed from red to blue. Family breakdown has in fact continued its long-term decline under the Tories as it did under the last Labour government: it has not become more likely. While relationships do end, drug addiction does happen, and homophobic attitudes remain rife in society, you cannot support the claim that there has been a coincidental rise in homophobia-driven evictions and domestic splits that exactly coincides with cuts to housing benefit and rising rents while having no detectable statistical presence elsewhere.

The truth – which we can clearly see in the tangible measures the government is now finally taking to belatedly fix the mess it has made – is that the rise in rough sleeping is the entirely predictable consequence not only of the decision taken to try to balance the books in a single parliamentary term but the decisions taken about how to do that: which was, particularly from 2010 to 2016, to cut public spending in ways that largely fell on people who did not vote Conservative or because they have chaotic lives, do not vote at all.

That involved what Polly Toynbee called “devolving the axe”: cutting local government funding, and local governments have largely concentrated on fulfilling their legal obligations and avoiding the most politically painful cuts. This once again meant that the hardest hit were people with very acute needs – because if your need is more acute, government may need to spend more money on you, but you still ultimately have only one vote. That, too, exacerbated the homelessness crisis. We can see that this has had a direct effect because, surprise surprise, the extra money announced by Brokenshire is ring-fenced to prevent it being used elsewhere. 

Deaths among rough sleepers, like Remes’s, are more likely to happen in extreme weather, something the government cannot control. But ultimately, the conditions that lead to people sleeping rough are not like the weather: they are within the control of the government.