Homelessness – are we preparing to fight the last war?

The public understanding of homelessness is changing as the character of homelessness changes.   But will it be enough to produce policies and action to reverse the growing number of people living in precarious situations, always in or at risk of homelessness or ending up on the streets?

The public understand, and often know, people living in overcrowded family homes who can’t afford to buy or rent. They hear about and see families with children stuck in temporary, usually overcrowded, accommodation.  The rough sleepers are visible on the streets in all of our cities.  All suffering impacts on their health and well being without house or a sense of home.

Channel 4’s Dispatches has added a new perspective with bleak implications. One that charities are seeing more often. The working, homeless, rough sleeper.     

People in a job, on the minimum wage, finding the minimum is not enough.  

A vivid illustration of increasing numbers living a precarious life on the edge and dropping in and out of rough sleeping.  

At a recent House of Commons presentation, Crisis put the numbers on the street at over 9000 – a more credible figure and double the commonly used snapshot statistic counted on one night.

One C4 Dispatches interviewee had a full time job and an MBA, one worked in a fine restaurant, another in a Bond Street luxury store,  but all were trapped in the chicken and egg of no deposit, no home.    

The ill thought out changes in housing benefits are now visibly impacting landlord behaviour around the UK pushing more people over the edge into rough sleeping, sofa surfing, overcrowding, and all with a serious detrimental impact on health and wellbeing.

For those working with rough sleepers it often feels like running up a down escalator that is noticeably getting faster.

The government has promised to only reduce rough sleeping to half by 2022.  A carefully calibrated recognition that many rough sleepers have addiction, mental health, socialisation, inclusion and alienation issues that will not be solved by housing alone and some will always be with us on the streets.   

The Homelessness Reduction Act aims to spot those at risk of homelessness, coming through social care, hospital discharge, prison, court eviction, family violence, social services or unemployment.

But Despatches highlighted how in the GIG economy of no guaranteed minimum hours, people and statutory services can’t see, or struggle to anticipate, the sudden impact of unemployment or underemployment that so often triggers homelessness. 

Basking in the summer heatwave of 2018 it is easy to forget that the coming winter will be the big test for the new regime of homelessness reduction.  Along with the promises of the big city Mayors to end rough sleeping in their cities, the bar has been set very high.

Preparing to tackle last years homelessness problem may be like generals preparing to fight the last war instead of the next one.

Neil Stewart – Editorial Director, Pathways From Homelessness