In 2017, at the launch of a report from the Centre for Social Justice on homelessness, I had the chance to ask Sajid Javid, then the housing secretary, whether he was committed to ending rough sleeping.
To my surprise, he said “yes”. In 2017 the government set a target of halving rough sleeping in England by the end of this parliament and ending it by 2027. In 2019 the Johnson administration went further, committing to end rough sleeping by 2024.
It was, and remains, a laudable and welcome aim – and it marked a sense of renewed purpose and energy focused on ending what we know is so damaging and isolating for the thousands of people forced to sleep rough on any given night.
I hardly need to spell out why such a policy is needed. Aside from the obvious exposure to extreme weather and increased risk of violence, the average age of people who die while homeless is 45 for men, and 43 for women.
We also know that ending rough sleeping can be done. It’s been achieved in Finland through the “housing first” approach of giving people who are homeless a home and tailored support, in place of hostels and shelters. In Scotland there was extraordinary progress during the pandemic, with Housing First provided to more than 1,000 people and every local council making a transition to what’s called “rapid rehousing”. Figures from the Simon Community, a homelessness charity, suggest Glasgow now has historically low levels of rough sleeping.
In England, six years after the welcome commitments of 2017, we are yet to see the same progress. The government does have a strategy to tackle rough sleeping. It is carefully crafted and involves many welcome and important measures that Crisis fully supports. It is also true that, up until last year, the numbers were going down. Sadly, however, that progress is being reversed and numbers are increasing again.
New figures out yesterday from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities show that on a given night in autumn 2022 there were an estimated 3,069 people sleeping rough in England – up by a quarter from 2021 and the first time the government has reported an increase in six years. Despite this being government data, the methodology and approach is contested, and it is likely to be a considerable underestimate.
Also published yesterday was data showing that the number of households in temporary accommodation is at its highest level in 18 years. At the end of September 2022, 99,270 households were stuck in temporary accommodation. This includes more than 125,000 children.
The causes of homelessness and rough sleeping are deeply embedded in policies that have remained untouched by the rough sleeping strategy. It is a quixotic reality that the one part of government is left to pick up the consequences of choices elsewhere in Whitehall, spending hundreds of millions in the process.
We have been in the grip of a housing crisis for well over a decade, but confronted with today’s cost of living pressures, the foundation that many people on low incomes need to ensure even a basic standard of living – a settled home – just isn’t there. Take for instance, Local Housing Allowance rates, which dictate how much people receive in Universal Credit to pay their rent. These have been frozen since 2019 while last year rents rose at their fastest rate in 16 years. This failure to keep up with real-world costs means that many people are facing impossible situations, often totally unable to afford their rent and forced into homelessness as a result.
The Housing First model, proven successful in Scotland and Finland, in which people are given the support and stability of secure housing matched with intensive support, has not had the backing it needs to properly get off the ground in England. And for some, the safety net does not exist at all. Non-UK nationals affected by “no recourse to public funds”, which includes those who have lived and worked in the UK for years, can get no help when at risk of losing their homes.
Without first changing the systems that are forcing people into homelessness and rough sleeping, we will not see an end to this blight on our society. In effect, we have seen a valiant attempt at curing the problem without addressing its causes. But during a housing and cost-of-living crisis, those causes are just too strong to neglect.
We must not conflate ending rough sleeping with ending homelessness, either. Lots of attention is given to rough sleeping, and rightly so, but rough sleeping is rarely the first form of homelessness that people experience – it just happens to be the worst. You cannot end rough sleeping without also addressing the fact that thousands live in hostels, night shelters and appalling temporary accommodation.
The lesson for the government is clear: these ambitious commitments are welcome; they push us to make a real difference in society and give policymakers, charities, community groups and businesses a collective goal to work towards. But without the right policies in place, what could have been a remarkable legacy for a government to leave behind will instead be a policy failure, and a painful reminder of how badly we have let people down.