Rough sleeping disaster must be averted

Unite homelessness workers’ fear worst as govt want rough sleepers to move in with family. Unite’s Paul Kershaw explains

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It’s easy to come up with ‘solutions’ when you have little actual understanding of the plight of sleeping rough – what it entails, how it affects people.

So perhaps it’s not a complete surprise to hear that government housing minister, Luke Hall, has written to local councils asking them to put in place plans to ‘support’ rough sleepers as the lockdown restrictions are eased.

He suggests that people who have been rough sleeping should be asked to move in with friends or family. Clearly anyone who could make such a proposal has no understanding whatsoever of the problems of rough sleepers and the serious challenges they face on a daily basis.

Unite members working in homelessness organisations have been spending long hours on the front line, while ministers have been in their comfortable officers or cosy homes to get people off the streets.

Now our members are being told to work at emptying the hotels that have been filled with former rough sleepers – without any adequate ‘move on’ accommodation to go to – or with sufficient time to resettle people. So by the end of the month literally thousands of rough sleepers could well find themselves back on the streets.

Despite the government claiming that 90 per cent of all rough sleepers had been found a bed that was never the case at all.  Some, with no recourse to public funds have been refused access. This legacy of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy deepens the health crisis.

Some rough sleepers avoid contact with services because of a lack of trust – not unfounded given the disgraceful and unlawful sharing of information between the Home Office and services such as St Mungo’s which, speaking for St Mungo’s workers, Unite campaigned against.

Rough sleeping could be solved

As people in sectors such as hospitality have been made redundant and then homeless, numbers in these groups on the street have increased.  Nevertheless, the success that was achieved by the programme shows that the problem of rough sleeping could be solved with adequate funding and effort.

Currently our members working with rough sleepers are being asked to empty the new hostels in hotels – and they are warning this could result in a rough sleeping disaster.

Jack Jeffery, who works with rough sleepers and is a Unite housing workers’ branch secretary commented, “There is a growing anxiety among the people we have found beds for in the crisis – and a sense of hopelessness among people on the street.

“The fear is that the government will simply dump people onto the street instead of helping them to find affordable secure homes. Homelessness agencies fear they will have no adequate help for clients with the most challenging needs. And workers fear that much of the benefit from their emergency efforts will be wasted.”

Jeffery continues, “We need an assurance of ongoing funding now, stable funding and a reversal of cuts, plus a commitment to building secure and truly affordable social rent homes. Rough sleeping is a scandal; it is not a natural phenomenon like the weather, it is the product of policy narrowly focused on profits rather than social need.”

And he’s not wrong. The government commitment to £52m over four years for visiting support to 16,666 rough sleepers is hopelessly inadequate compared to the scale of the task. That is to accept for a moment the government’s current figures – before the pandemic it claimed just 4,266 slept rough. In February, the BBC reported that 28,000 slept rough.

No truly reliable figures are available, but it is clear that government has severely underestimated the scale of the crisis and the pandemic has intensified the drivers of rough sleeping.

It is also noteworthy that the UK statistics authority has written to the ministry for housing communities and local government calling on it to ensure statistics are published in a format which is available to all, with definitions and limitations explained.

Boris boasts

In a recent visit to a homelessness centre with housing minister Robert Jenrick, Boris Johnson boasted that his plan to expand Housing First by 6,000 beds would eradicate homelessness. However, when pressed that this didn’t even match the 9,000 hostel beds lost since 2010, he had no reply. There have been too many empty announcements from the government on rough sleeping.

Unite has repeatedly highlighted some key facts on rough sleeping and homelessness: that bed spaces in accommodation services aimed at helping people off the street fell from 43,655 in 2010 to 34,900 in 2018 – a fall of nearly 9,000. And that the spending by councils on single homeless people fell by 53 per cent between 2008/09 and 2017/18. Finally – the total spent by local authorities on homelessness services has dropped by £1bn in total in a decade.

Urgent action has to be taken. Unite is calling for an extension of current funding – allowing time for new arrangements; converting some of the new homeless hotels for long term use for rough sleepers – they increasingly house most high needs people, and given state of hospitality sector makes sense.

Unite also wants to see the restoration of cuts since 2010 – and an increase in services; as well as an increase in supply of genuinely affordable housing – which means council homes.

By Paul Kershaw, housing workers’ branch (LE1111) chair

@UniteHousing @1917Paul 

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