Boris Johnson is at the White House for his first US visit as prime minister just days after Joe Biden did something he, so far, has not – announce a long-term plan to tackle homelessness.
The US president unveiled his House America initiative on Monday asking leaders in city, county, state and tribal governments to pledge to reduce homelessness. In return they will receive support from the federal government to provide permanent housing for rough sleepers as well as more affordable homes for people to prevent others losing theirs.
The president is also championing Housing First – a model that sees rough sleepers given a home alongside support that is widely tipped to have a big impact in tackling street homelessness.
“The Biden administration is launching House America, a new initiative for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness that will engage state and local leaders to set and achieve ambitious goals for reducing homelessness in America,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“Homelessness was on the rise before the pandemic, and the last couple of years have just exacerbated the problem. On any given night, more than half a million Americans were enduring the pandemic without the safety and protection of a home.”
Biden’s move was notable because it showed clear leadership on how the administration will tackle homelessness and put an emphasis on Housing First.
The Westminster government has faced calls for both in recent months.
Johnson’s government acted quickly to launch the Everyone In scheme as the pandemic broke out in March 2020, sheltering more than 37,000 rough sleepers and vulnerable people in emergency accommodation.
The urgent action saved lives – 266 during the first lockdown according to University College London researchers. But as the scheme has wound down and local authorities and central government have searched for permanent accommodation for sleepers – the question has been what next?
Johnson’s government has targeted an end to rough sleeping by 2024 and there has been significant investment with the promise of £750 million to be spent tackling homelessness in 2021. There have also been pledges to offer 6,000 homes for rough sleepers, Housing First pilot projects and the multi-billion-pound Affordable Homes Programme.
But there has been no word on the overriding strategy to deliver it, despite repeated pleas for a plan.
In January, as former housing secretary Robert Jenrick called on councils to “redouble efforts” to protect rough sleepers, the National Audit Office called on the government to bring “the initiatives and funding streams announced during Covid-19 into a cohesive plan”.
It was a call echoed in March.The Public Accounts Committee’s report into Everyone In warned the Government’s Rough Sleeping Strategy was “out of date” and has not set out plans on how to end rough sleeping which ”is a failure for which the department cannot blame the pandemic”.
By the summer the Kerslake Commission – an independent report into rough sleeping during the pandemic from former head of the civil service Lord Bob Kerslake – called for “clear leadership” and a commitment at next month’s spending review to treat the issue as a “public health priority”. Lord Kerslake will release his final conclusions tomorrow.
Writing in the commission’s interim report, Lord Kerslake said: “Clear leadership is needed to tackle this issue, and the funding that flows from [the Comprehensive Spending Review] must be long term, joined up and flexible, so that it is applicable to different individual and local circumstances. This approach will reduce waste, improve effective outcomes and prevent flow onto the streets.”
Homelessness charities, too, have been calling for a long-term strategy to end rough sleeping.
Earlier this month, Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes told The Big Issue the spending review must also bring a national roll-out of Housing First, warning 9,000 people protected through Everyone In risk being trapped in homelessness without it.
“The past 18 months have shown what can be done when we prioritise tackling one of the greatest social injustices of our time – but we need to go further,” said Sparkes.
“The job isn’t finished until people are moved into permanent homes and provided with the support they need to keep it.”
Meanwhile councils in England dealt with 10,000 more cases of homelessness in the first year of the pandemic than in the previous year, according to government statistics released in September.
And The Big Issue is warning of rising homelessness to come. With the universal credit cut on the horizon alongside the end of the furlough scheme, rising energy costs and taxes as well as Covid disruption, The Big Issue has launched the Stop Mass Homelessness campaign to warn of the impending crisis.
What’s the plan to protect against surging homelessness this autumn? Perhaps, in between the talk of trade deals and how to handle Afghanistan, the prime minister can take inspiration from Joe Biden while he’s in Washington.
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