Monday, 30 October 2017

Stop saying that there are only 4134 homeless people in England

In the autumn of 2016 all local authorities were required to either count or estimate the number of people sleeping rough on their patch. The returns came in with figures ranging from Westminster’s 280 to West Devon’s zero. When they were all added up they totalled 4134. This is currently the latest official national count of people sleeping outside in England therefore, isn’t it fair enough for people to talk about this as a fairly reliable indication of how many people are homeless in this country?

No, categorically, it is not. This real figure is probably around 60 times higher. The real number of homeless people is so completely incomparable with the results of that count it needs addressing. It needs addressing not just because it’s so wildly misleading but also because if the figure is more like 250,000 we have a very significant problem that requires a structural shift in the way our society handles housing. If it’s around 4000 we have a sad, but marginal issue which probably requires someone, somewhere to just have a heart and provide them all with a home.

So where is the disconnect between the two? I’ll tackle this in stages….

1.       This 4134 figure is just those people that can either be found or are known by agencies supporting them to have slept outside on the night when their count was done. Obviously, some people won’t have been found, or won’t have been known to anyone who was present when they came up with the estimates.

2.       This 4134 figure is just a snapshot. Even if it had been accurate on the night it was taken it could have halved or doubled by the next night. Homelessness is not a static issue. Treating it as static makes out that homelessness is an integral part of who some people are, not a temporary condition of being without accommodation. Homelessness must be understood as being in motion all the time, there are people losing their accommodation and becoming homeless and there are people finding accommodation who were previously homeless and becoming housed. If the rate at which people are becoming homeless is greater than the rate at which homeless people are getting housed then a snapshot count taken on a series of nights will show the number of people stuck in the middle, who are currently without anywhere to live, will be going up.

3.       The first two points there are quibbles really compared to this; homelessness doesn’t simply mean ‘sleeping outside’. Homelessness is a state in which a person has no accommodation that they have a legal right to occupy or could be reasonably expected to occupy.

a.       A person fleeing domestic violence has a legal right to occupy their former home but can’t be reasonably expected to stay there.

b.      A person whose friend is allowing them and their kids to sleep on their living room floor for a little while because they refuse to see them on the streets or in the hands of social services has no legal right to that living room floor and must be recognised as being homeless.

4.       A further category of people should also be categorised as homeless; those people who are currently occupying specialist temporary accommodation for homeless people. This may be a Night Shelter provided by a small charity, a supported housing project (hostel) provided by a housing association or a room in a B+B provided by the local authority as a part of their statutory duties under the 1996 housing act or by social services because there were children involved.  

It’s once you add in those last two categories that you get close to the real figure. Shelter have done the hard work in estimating these and it was them who came up with the 250,000 figure albeit almost a year ago now so we can’t keep on quoting that one forever.

A quarter of a million people in this country with nowhere to call home is a huge issue. In London it’s 1 in every 51 people and it’s getting worse every year. This is the direct result of the attack on social housing and the pushing of the private rented sector.

Despite the cheap talk from the Tory government about support for social housing they have put a stop to councils being able to borrow money to build it, they have given developers new loopholes to avoid planning regulations which require them to provide it, they have redefined what it means to include houses for sale which only people on way above average incomes could afford and they have accelerated the speed at which it’s being sold off.

At the same time, despite the whining of private landlords over them not being able to deduct mortgage interest from their tax payments (this is taken to be an all-out ideological assault on their right to exist and practice their ‘profession’) the Tories have, over the years laid on all of the conditions necessary for their sector to more than double in size since the turn of the century. The scene was set by the ripping up of private renters’ rights in the 80s and the financial incentivisation of buy-to-let in the 90s. All the while the government were busy creating a new market for private landlords by selling off social housing and preventing more being built, changing the rules to allow local authorities to discharge their homelessness duties by setting people up with private tenancies and filibustering bills written to provide tenants with just a few simple protections again.

Reliance on the private rented sector for housing will lead to what it always led to from the beginning of the industrial revolution up until the mass building of social housing and the expansion of homeownership in the post-war 20th century – slums and homelessness. And it’s already well on its way.