By Teresa Pearce MP, Shadow Minister for Housing and Planning, and patron of LCEH
I pray that I will never be homeless. Every single day I count my blessings that I have a roof over my head, a place of safety, a home to call my own. For an increasing number of people their reality is completely different.
You only have to travel through your local town centre to know that homelessness is rising. It’s difficult to walk 100m at night in many towns and cities across the country without seeing rough sleepers huddled together in doorways, desperate for a warm drink or hot meal. Each person sleeping rough is a sign that our society has fallen short.
Rough sleeping is up 55% since David Cameron took office. Behind each individual that make up homelessness figures is a story. Some are evicted from the private rented sector, unable to keep up with the dramatic increases in rent while stuck on a zero-hours contract. Some have been forced out of their homes following a family dispute. Many sleeping rough will be suffering with poor mental and physical health.
Statutory homelessness – those who have to seek support from their local council after being made homeless – is also up 36% since 2010 while administrative changes mask the true increase across recent years. Many homeless people do not show up in official figures either – the hidden homelessness across our society, from those having to move back in with parents to those sofa surfing or to those forced into overcrowding small properties just to ensure a roof over their head.
The government has questions to answer on this rise. Local authorities, overstretched and under-resourced are struggling to keep up with the growing homelessness crisis. There is a chronic shortage of homes and no sign yet that the government will be able to deliver enough new homes to meet growing need. Housing has become unaffordable to many, for those looking to get on the ladder and those struggling with poor conditions for inflated rents. Their six years of failure on housing have all contributed to this crisis.
Two thirds of councils attribute the rise in homelessness directly to government policy on welfare reform – from the Bedroom Tax, to the cap on housing benefit and lower rates of housing benefit for under-35s.
But the government are not finished cutting housing benefit yet. Their latest proposals, first announced by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement last year, would see those in supported housing hit with a cap.
Supported housing provides more than just accommodation for our elderly, our disabled, for those fleeing domestic violence, for veterans and others – it can provide both a vital support network and a genuine home to our most vulnerable. It prevents our society’s most vulnerable from falling into homelessness and ensures our society’s most vulnerable are not forced into unsuitable accommodation.
With the introduction of the change a year off, the decision is already having a devastating effect with the building of thousands of vital supported homes delayed or scrapped altogether because of uncertainty over future funding. Indeed the National Housing Federation estimates that 82,000 specialist homes would be forced to close – that’s 41% of all specialist housing.
Unless this decision is reversed, in a years’ time many of our most vulnerable will faced with the prospect of being unable to continue to afford to live where they live. Many of our vital supported housing providers, from homeless shelters to women’s refuges, will be faced with a funding gap which will undoubtedly lead to closures.
I have seen at first hand the outstanding and often unsung work done by those providing supported housing. So it is frustrating to see their hands effectively tied behind their backs by this government’s decision. It will have very real and miserable consequences for our most vulnerable.
This decision is both heartless and economically incompetent. In its handling of housing issues the government has lost sight of the adverse impact to the economy of their policies. Each person sleeping rough or denied supported housing is not just a sign that government policy is failing, it is also accompanied by the potential for further cost when other agencies and services have to intervene to deal with the consequences.
Each person sleeping rough is a sign that our society has fallen short, and we must do all we can to reverse the recent trend and get people off the streets and into secure accommodation. By cutting housing benefit for those in supported housing, the government are putting the security of accommodation for tens of thousands of our society’s most vulnerable at risk. The government urgently needs to reverse this decision and come forward with a plan to tackle homelessness across our society.