With rough sleeping on the UK’s streets at record levels, it’s time to take bold steps and end this emergency. But what can be done? Let’s look deeper at solving this pressing problem.
In London alone, there are an estimated 8,000 people who are going to spend tonight sleeping on the streets. Since 2010, the number of people sleeping rough has shot up by 165%. While the Government and the wider society are trying to solve this problem (there has been a slight fall in rough sleeping since 2018, according to official figures), it’s clear that efforts so far have been a drop in the ocean.
Rough sleeping, meaning people without homes or even temporary accommodation who are forced to sleep on the streets, is a blight on the UK. For the men, women and children who have no choice but to do it, it is a living nightmare. People who live on the streets may suffer from poor physical and mental health, they’re at risk from violent crime, they often slip into drug or alcohol addiction. They struggle to access the services we take for granted, like seeing a doctor or collecting benefits. For people who don’t live on the streets, seeing people that do is a reminder that society doesn’t work for everyone.
So what is being done to solve this problem and what more should we be doing in order to end the scourge of rough sleeping?
The most common way of lifting rough sleepers from the streets is for local authorities to place them in temporary accommodation, usually a bed and breakfast hotel. However, this is little more than a short-term fix that comes with several drawbacks. People living in temporary housing are still considered homeless, even if they are not on the streets.
Temporary accommodation is, by definition, temporary. In a matter of weeks or months, homeless families can be shunted around different shelters. This transient lifestyle can put a strain on children’s education. Temporary accommodation can be intimidating and hostile places. Studies show it does not help improve the health of homeless people to live in shelters. People can find accessing services difficult without a fixed abode. Finally, housing homeless people in temporary accommodation is expensive, at a time when local authority funds are scarce.
The journey off the streets is hard, but what homeless people really need is a home, not a stop-gap.
Affordable homes – the solution
To solve the problem of rough sleeping, we need to move homeless people out of temporary accommodation and into permanent homes that they can afford. Whether these homes are provided by the local council or through mainstream rental, these are homes, not stop-gaps.
At the moment, affordable homes are added to the housing stock through Section 106 of the Town Planning Act, where developers must allocate a percentage of their new build to be affordable housing, in return for receiving permission to build. There are several other schemes to create affordable homes and administrate them, making them more comfortable for their new inhabitants, based around the New York Housing First model.
Once in a permanent home, these formerly homeless people can start to build a new life. They can access medical services and enrol children into schools. They have safety and security, but perhaps most importantly, they have dignity. When you’re homeless, it’s like you’re a second-class citizen. Getting into a home redresses the balance.
How can we find more affordable housing?
As great as it is to create affordable homes for people on the streets or in temporary accommodation, not enough is being done at the moment. The amount of homes constructed each year is not nearly sufficient to solve the problem of homelessness in the UK. So how can we encourage more to be built?
One idea would be to revise Section 106 to require developers to set aside a larger proportion of their new builds to be affordable housing.
Alternatively, the Government could set aside larger grants to housing schemes. In February 2020, it pledged £236 million extra funding to tackle the homelessness problem. This is a start, but much more is needed.
What’s really needed is a massive house-building drive, where social housing is put at the forefront. After World War II and into the 1950s and 60s, the country built hundreds of thousands of new social homes. Maybe we could do that again?
Of course, these ideas have many disadvantages that stand in the way of them ever being carried out. Developers will resist any attempt to revise Section 106, as it would eat into their margins, while the Government can’t just keep on endlessly handing out money. A drive to build social housing would be enormously expensive and also take many years. We do not have time to wait.
Local government red tape and bureaucracy is also a barrier to greater efficiency in building and allocating affordable homes. While, if creating more affordable homes led to a drop in overall house prices, there would be a public uproar. House prices are a borderline obsession in the UK.
We need a complete shift in thinking if we are going to solve this problem.
Creating affordable homes is a key element in the fight for an end to homelessness. However, current attempts to change the situation are not really working. We need something new, something bold.
There are people working behind the scenes to change things, with new ideas that will make more affordable housing a reality rather than something that is too good to be true. In time, their ideas and strategies will be revealed.
The one thing that is needed above all else to finally end rough sleeping in the UK is the will to do it.