Homelessness is, along with unemployment, one of the most devastating events that can happen to someone, writes Karen Buck MP.
Homelessness is not, as Iain Duncan Smith has claimed, a merely technical situation where your children have to share a bedroom. Homelessness has a clear, strict legal meaning, interpreted as such by courts and local councils alike, and illustrated every day by the judgements of 'intentional homelessness' made by local housing authorities.
Like unemployment, the trauma of losing the roof over your head can have deep and damaging consequences, with the impact most severely felt by children and vulnerable adults, such as those with mental or other health problems. The campaigning organisation Shelter grew from one particularly vivid presentation of what homelessness could do - the film 'Cathy come Home', which exposed the devastating consequences of homelessness on families. We have come a long way in our attitude since then. But we have not come far enough.
Although the numbers of homeless were declining by the late 1990s, I was particularly proud of the decision by the last Labour government to time-limit the period any family with children could spend in a Bed and Breakfast. But with nearly £2 billion worth of cuts to housing benefit, a dramatic increase in the number of working people relying on government help with their (generally speaking, rising rents) and a collapse in affordable home building since 2010, the government is beginning to reap what it has sewn. Indeed, the consequences were spelt out in a memo from the secretary of state for the department for communities and local government (DCLG) to the Prime Minister last summer, which warned of 40,000 more homeless households.
Although this letter was instantly dismissed, homelessness is now, as predicted, rising across the board:
- In 2011, 106,070 people approached their council as homeless, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year.
- Of these, 48,510 households were accepted as owed the main homelessness duty - a 14 per cent increase on 2010.
- Government street counts and estimates show that around 2,181 people sleep rough on any one night across England, a rise of 23 per cent on the previous year. And homelessness agencies report that 3,975 people were seen sleeping rough in London 20010/11, an 8 per cent rise on 2009/10
- The number of families now forced to stay in Bed and Breakfast for longer than the maximum of 6 weeks increased 3-fold between 2010 and 2011.
The government was warned. Now ministers need to show that they can get a grip of this situation. Homelessness is expensive- it is a false economy to throw people out of their homes to save £50 or £100 a week, only to end up forcing them to stay for months in a hotel! And homelessness is personally devastating and corrosive of communities.
The main government departments involved need to stop playing 'pass the parcel' with their cuts, work together and come up with an integrated approach which reduces the human misery and wasteful expense of homelessness before these already grim statistics get any worse.
Karen Buckwas the MP for Regent's Park and Kensington North from 1997 to 2010, and Westminster North since the general election of May 2010.
Response: Homeless Link
Homeless Link's recent Survey of Needs and Provision highlights that homelessness services are facing a shrinking capacity and cuts to funding at a time of rising demand from newly homeless people. Due to the chronic shortage of affordable accommodation, the continued recession, rising unemployment along with major welfare reform changes, homelessness is rising.
Homelessness agencies continue to achieve positive outcomes for people with high support needs and multiple problems. Their work needs to be valued by central and local government. Both have a major stake in tackling homelessness and need to ensure continued investment in these essential services. Without these services more people will become trapped in a cycle of homelessness with the consequent damage this has on individuals as well as local communities.