3 ways to really tackle homelessness

Yesterday the government published its much-anticipated Rough Sleeping Strategy, setting out its plans to end rough sleeping by 2027. There is much to welcome in the strategy—from a focus on prevention, to funding for dedicated outreach teams, emergency bed spaces, and a trial of a ‘somewhere safe to stay’ service in 15 locations.

But there is also much to disappoint. For a start, it has already emerged that there is no new cash behind the new strategy, despite the headlines about a £100m investment. Compounded with today’s Social Housing green paper failing to announce any new homes, despite experts calling for 80,000 genuinely affordable homes a year to address the housing shortage, the policy environment seems gloomy.

NPC’s research over the last six months shows that much more needs to be done to tackle the homelessness crisis. If we’re serious about ending homelessness, then we need to go beyond rough sleeping, beyond short-term fixes, and beyond stereotypes.

Beyond rough sleeping

Rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to homelessness. In 2016/17, there were 4,700 people recorded as sleeping rough in England but councils acted on more than 274,000 cases of homelessness in total. These include tens of thousands of people staying in hostels, refuges, shelters, or temporary accommodation; as well as others who were assisted to stay in their home but whose situation remains precarious.

If we want to end homelessness for good, then we need to expand our idea of what it means to be homeless. Justlife Foundation, which works alongside people in unsupported temporary accommodation, argues that homelessness is much more than ‘rooflessness’. People in temporary accommodation have no security of tenure, very few rights, and many suffer with deteriorating mental and physical health.

The government says it will set out how it is helping people affected by other forms of homelessness in a future strategy. This needs to be addressed with the same urgency with which it is tackling rough sleeping.

Beyond short-term fixes

The government’s Rough Sleeping Strategy has a welcome focus on prevention alongside intervention and recovery. Building on the prevention duties in the Homelessness Reduction Act, the strategy sets out measures to strengthen local authorities’ role in preventing homelessness. There are also initiatives to support people leaving hospital, prison, the care system, and modern slavery.

Yet the strategy doesn’t go far enough in addressing the systemic issues that lead to people sleeping rough. The evidence suggests that welfare reform, cuts to frontline services, and a lack of affordable housing supply are the main factors behind the recent increase in homelessness. But the ‘welfare’ section of the strategy is remarkably light in actions, pointing to the difficulties that people face in navigating the system rather than acknowledging issues with the system itself.

As the seven homelessness charities who advised on the strategy warned:

‘For the strategy to work, the government must also set out bold, cross-departmental plans to tackle the root causes of all forms of homelessness and prevent it from happening in the first place. This must include plans to build significantly more social housing, to foster greater security for renters, to ensure people have access to benefits and other support they need to help them keep their homes.’

Joint statement from Crisis, Homeless Link, National Housing Federation, Shelter, St Basil’s, St Mungo’s and Thames Reach

Beyond stereotypes

Several news stories about the strategy focus on support for rough sleepers who are taking the drug ‘Spice’—despite this being a relatively small part of the document. Sadly, this reflects the wider narrative around homelessness, which focuses on stereotypes and defines people by their problems like addiction.

‘When you’re on the street, people really look down on you. They probably think you’re hooked on drugs or an alcoholic. Often you can be, but that is a consequence of being homeless rather than the initial cause. I think if people really thought about what caused me to be there, they might be more sympathetic and not acted like I was invisible.’

Person with lived experience of homelessness at Crisis Skylight London centre

These perceptions can dehumanise and stigmatise people, leading to less public goodwill to tackle homelessness. This has been exacerbated by a recent increase in hostile environments for homeless people—from ‘homeless spikes’ that stop people sleeping outside flats to Public Space Protection Orders that criminalise people for begging. Research shows that this ‘othering’ of homeless people can make members of the public reluctant to act on the issue or donate to homelessness charities.

Our discussions with people across the sector have raised the importance of changing public perceptions if we are to galvanise effective action to end homelessness. Rather than falling back on tired stereotypes, we need to see homeless people as fellow human beings who are going through a bad time—or who have been failed by the systems around them.

With this in mind, one final positive from the Rough Sleeping Strategy is the government’s commitment to review the Vagrancy Act so that people who sleep rough are not discriminated against. It is shocking that this Act dating back to 1824 is still in place, making it illegal to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. This—like so much of our current approach to rough sleeping—is in dire need of updating. The government’s Rough Sleeping Strategy is a welcome step in the right direction, but much more is needed to end homelessness for good.

Discuss our work on homelessness with us on Twitter and to hear more about these new approaches in different contexts come to our conference, NPC Ignites.