“A decent provision for the poor,” said Samuel Johnson, “is the true test of civilisation.” That’s an uncomfortable reflection when you walk through Britain’s cities. In wealthier regions especially – and London above all – it’s become steadily more common to see a tent outside a railway station, or a series of sleeping bags on a high street.
Statistics confirm that impression. The most recent government figures suggest rough sleeping has risen for seven years running, to 4,751 in 2017. (London accounts for a little under a quarter.) But that figure, based on local authorities’ estimates, is probably lower than the real figure – and it only includes those actually sleeping in doorways, parks, barns and so on. On a broad definition of homelessness, used by Shelter, the number is conservatively put at 320,000.
Rough sleepers are easily outnumbered by the “hidden homeless” – those being put up by family or friends; “sofa surfers” who move from one house to another, paying or asking for help; people living in “unsuitable housing such as squats or in ‘beds in sheds’ situations”, to quote the charity Crisis. Most hidden homeless will also have slept rough at some point.
Then there are the 80,000 or so households in temporary accommodation: either reliant on night shelters, hostels and women’s refuges, or placed by the council in the best housing that could be found. Sometimes that accommodation is wholly inadequate – as shown by a recent Daily Mirror report from Manchester, which has this year placed 1,400 families in emergency accommodation. “There was poo in the cupboards, leaks coming through the ceiling in my grandson’s room,” said one recipient of temporary housing. “There was the bath coming through the kitchen ceiling on a regular basis through the wiring, dead rats in the kitchen.”
Another remembered crying every night: “If we went outside for fresh air, there were alcoholics and drug addicts hanging around. We felt so unsafe. I wouldn’t even let [my daughter] out to go to the takeaway round the corner on her own.”
It’s hard to blame councils, however, which are understaffed and underfunded, and facing a wider problem: there just isn’t enough affordable housing. An extreme example is the London borough of Newham, where one in 24 residents – 15,000 – are homeless, including those in temporary accommodation. (Around 75 are sleeping rough.) As so often, the Church plays some part in remedying the situation: since 1962, the Catholic charity Anchor House (now called Caritas Anchor House) has worked to support the homeless, finding them paid work and getting them back on their feet.
Amanda Dubarry, chief executive of Caritas Anchor House, describes the situation is Newham as “harrowing”. She tells me the area’s homelessness is caused by “spiralling rents, welfare cuts and a chronic underinvestment in housing over a number of years.”
Homelessness workers tend to mention these same things: they point to welfare reforms which have weakened the safety net for the most vulnerable; high rents and a system unfairly balanced towards landlords rather than tenants; and a reluctance to fund housing.
Less often mentioned, but also part of the picture, is the lack of political or cultural support for traditional marriage and the resulting chaos. (According to Shelter, relationship breakdown is responsible for one in every six cases of homelessness in England.) Then there is the drugs trade, which relies on making the desperate even more helpless. Another factor, according to some studies, is immigration – which government figures say has contributed 20 per cent of housing price growth since 1991.
Whatever the causes, there are some widely agreed solutions. And the government has tried to implement them: last year’s Homelessness Reduction Act increased local authorities’ legal duties to anticipate and prevent homelessness. But its implementation requires money, and local authority budgets have plummeted in recent years.
The government has also given £50 million to build special housing for those at risk. Front-line workers argue that this is a drop in the ocean.
Meanwhile, there are immediate steps everyone can take: volunteering if there’s time, donating if possible, little gestures of friendliness to the homeless.
Amanda Dubarry recommends contacting StreetLink if you see someone sleeping rough and are worried: just report what you’ve seen at www.streetlink.org.uk or 0300 500 0914, and they can help connect that person with local support.
At Christmas, the generosity of the British people is not in doubt: both Crisis and the Salvation Army have said they have more seasonal volunteers than they have spaces. But none of the factors which lead to homelessness – social, economic, political, cultural – are going away soon. Johnson’s test remains unanswered.