Can Boris Johnson fulfil pledge to end homelessness in UK?
Outside Westminster tube station, in the encampment of rough sleepers across the street from parliament, Ray Hoblyn is looking forward to Brexit.
The 32-year-old from Wandsworth has lacked a permanent home since the age of 14. His young son is in the process of being adopted and a history of drug addiction has marred his attempts to find stability. Mr Hoblyn has little faith in politicians’ ability to help him: “I’ve lost my family, and the government can’t fix that.”
But Mr Hoblyn believes curbs on migration after the UK leaves the EU may cut demand for housing and help rough sleepers like him. “I’ll be spending Christmas out here. After Brexit, maybe everything will be better . . . MPs, please do me a favour and get all these homeless off the streets.”
The promise of pushing ahead with Brexit helped Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to an election victory this month with the party’s biggest majority in more than three decades. And Mr Hoblyn is not the only one hoping it will use this mandate to aid the UK’s growing numbers of homeless people.
Rough sleepers on the UK’s city streets are one of the most visible legacies of the past decade of austerity imposed by successive Tory-led administrations. Those sleeping outdoors more than doubled between 2010 and 2018, rising from about 1,768 to 4,677, according to government estimates, which are widely considered to be on the low side.
People living on the street are merely the most severe and visible part of a far larger homelessness problem in a country that ranks among the top 30 richest in the world measured by GDP per capita.
The charity Shelter said last week that at least 280,000 people, or one in every 200, in England lack a permanent home, an increase of 23,000 from three years ago.
Mr Johnson’s government has promised to address the problem, including ending rough sleeping within five years.
But policy experts said existing measures were not enough to tackle the roots of homelessness. Rather than blaming immigration, they said the main cause was the lack of low-cost housing that has forced many on low incomes into expensive private renting, and thousands from there into temporary accommodation organised by local councils.
Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, said homelessness organisations had long dealt with people with so-called complex needs, such as mental health problems and drug use. But “by far the most prevalent cause now is people whose problems are financial — people not being able to afford their rent any more and being evicted”, he explained.
The local housing allowance, the housing benefit used by low-income tenants of private landlords, has been frozen since 2016 and before that underwent a series of cuts as part of the austerity drive by then chancellor George Osborne.
There are simply not enough low-cost homes available, according to Crisis. Its research found that across 92 per cent of areas in mainland Britain, fewer than one in five privately rented homes are cheap enough to be covered by this payment.
Ronnie Haynes, 26, is one person caught in this trap. She juggles studying for her degree with caring for her two-year-old son. Her partner is a plumber but they cannot afford private rents in north London, where they live. Instead the family is in temporary accommodation that is slated for demolition and blighted with mould, although it is an improvement on the single room they used to have in an overcrowded hostel, where drug abuse was rife.
“If I could afford private rent I’d definitely do it — we have looked at it but it just isn’t going to work. We just want somewhere to call home,” she said.
Mr Downie praised the government’s Homelessness Reduction Act, passed last year, which requires councils to address the risk of homelessness before people actually lose their home. But he and others in the sector agree that more fundamental changes are needed to address structural problems in the housing market.
Polly Neate, chief executive of the homelessness charity Shelter, said: “You can’t reduce homelessness without homes. The shortage of social housing is fundamentally limiting the effectiveness of the Homelessness Reduction Act.”
She said it was “feasible” for the government to achieve its goal of ending rough sleeping in five years, but added: “What we really need to do is provide safe, secure homes for people to live in and prevent them becoming homeless in the first place.”
The government has said it will renew the Affordable Homes Programme, a multi-billion-pound funding scheme for new cut-price homes.
But under new criteria brought in by the David Cameron government, part of this funding has gone to homes for so-called “affordable rent”, which can cost up to 80 per cent of market rents. That has led to a cut in the construction of much cheaper “social” homes: just 6,237 homes were built for social rent in 2018-19, down from 31,122 a decade earlier.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledged before the election to launch large-scale programmes of social homebuilding.
Robert Jenrick, housing secretary, said that reducing homelessness was a “moral imperative”, adding: “One homeless person is one too many and this government is taking action to protect those most at risk.”
Mr Downie said the Conservative election pledge to expand a pilot scheme called Housing First, an evidence-based approach used in several countries that offers a home without conditions alongside intensive support for those with complex needs, was encouraging.
Such a scheme could help long-term rough sleepers like those around Westminster tube station, just yards from the Houses of Parliament, where two homeless people died last year. They were just two of an estimated 726 people who died without homes in England and Wales in 2018 at an average age of 45 for men and 43 for women, according to government figures.
A 46-year-old friend of Mr Hoblyn, who sat at the station in a bedraggled Santa suit, has survived this far despite being without a permanent home since the age of 13. The man, who preferred not to give his name, swigged Strongbow and turned tearful as he waved at passers-by. He admitted: “It really hurts, being here.”