On a recent visit to a housing project in Glasgow the new government minister with responsibility for homelessness, Heather Wheeler, admitted that she “didn’t know” the reasons for the rise in rough sleeping that has occurred in each of the last seven years.
In a spirit of helpfulness, it seems only fair that I enlighten her on some of the reasons.
- Housing benefit cuts for EU migrants – Back in 2015 the government introduced a change to benefit regulations that meant that EU citizens had to demonstrate that they’d been in legitimate employment for at least six months before they were allowed to claim social security benefits. Many people would say ‘fair enough’; and it is true that this change wasn’t a problem for most EU citizens (who either don’t need housing benefit at all, or only claim it for short periods in-between paid employment). But there were some who could no longer claim housing benefit and therefore couldn’t pay their rent. This is particularly true for those who came over from eastern Europe, who are proportionately more likely to work in the informal economy and would therefore be unable to demonstrate a history of ‘legitimate’ employment even when they felt that they had been working. Such people were caught in an unfortunate situation whereby they were in the country wholly legally (and so couldn’t be deported) but were effectively rendered destitute. In that situation the street was the only option.
- Ongoing cuts to Supporting People funding – If we want to understand why rough sleeping has increased the past seven years, it might help to look at why it decreased in the eight years prior to 2011. The answer, in large part, is because of the introduction of Supporting People (SP) funding in 2003. This didn’t provide additional housing; instead it funded support services that helped to keep the most vulnerable people in the housing that was already there. This was the first time that such services had been properly and securely funded and the result was a programme that was phenomenally successful at getting – and keeping – people off the streets. However, the £1.5bn annual budget was always in the government’s sights and, once the financial crash hit, the ring-fence that protected SP was removed so councils no longer had to spend the money on services to protect the homeless. With overall council funding being cut, the SP grant has been used to plug funding gaps in other services which have a higher political priority. The consequence has been that some homeless services have been shut. But almost more significantly, those that remain no longer have sufficient funding to offer support to the most vulnerable – the services are just too stretched and the risks of working with rough sleepers are too high. So many of the most chaotic people are refused a bed at hostels that might previously have accommodated them. So whilst the government is right to say that they have not cut the number of bed spaces available to the homeless, that is not the whole story. The bed spaces are now available to different people, and the higher risk people have nowhere to go but the street.
- The loss of co-ordinated services – It might seem obvious, but rough sleepers don’t just rely on housing services. They also rely on health services (especially mental health services), probation services, rehabilitation services and many more. They also take up a disproportionate amount of the police and community support officers’ time. In order to deal with rough sleeping all of these services have to work together to get the rough sleeper the right kind of support at the point at which they encounter public service agencies. But of course, all of those organisations have also experienced cuts and so their capacity to link up with homeless services is greatly diminished. Take multi-disciplinary rough-sleeper outreach teams. These have all but disappeared over the past few years and it means that people find it very hard to access the wrap-around support that is necessary in order for them even to be considered for a place in a homeless hostel.
All of this means that, whilst Ms Wheeler’s commitment to building more Affordable Homes is to be welcomed, she shouldn’t be under any illusions that it will help solve the rough sleeping crisis. People don’t sleep rough because of lack of housing – they might sleep on friends’ floors or in over-crowded accommodation, but they won’t end up on the street. They sleep rough because of lack of the necessary support services that enable them to access the accommodation that is available and to sustain a tenancy there.
Alan Fraser is chief executive of YMCA Birmingham