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Robert Jenrick: Conservatives got it 'wrong' on rough sleeping

Former housing secretary Jenrick set the Westminster government’s target to end rough sleeping by 2024 and presided over the rough sleeping pandemic response. He told The Big Issue where the government is up to in tackling homelessness

Robert Jenrick on rough sleeping

Robert Jenrick has seen the Westminster government's response from the front and back benches in Westminster. Image: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street

Former housing secretary Robert Jenrick has admitted to The Big Issue that the Conservatives were “wrong” to allow rough sleeping to rise after the party got into power in 2010.

The latest rough sleeping snapshot figures, released on Thursday, showed the number of people estimated to be sleeping on the streets in England was down for a fourth consecutive year with 2,440 people counted on the streets in autumn 2021.

Speaking ahead of the figures’ release, Jenrick insisted that Boris Johnson’s government is the first in years to take the matter seriously but was cagey on whether ministers can reach the Conservative manifesto promise of ending rough sleeping by 2024.

“I’d like to think we could end this parliament with rough sleeping down to at least the levels that we Conservatives found it when we came into power originally in 2010,” said Jenrick.

“It’s quite wrong that it rose so significantly in the first half of our tenure in government. It’s good that it’s coming down now.

“I’d like to think that we end this parliament with a system in place, a serious, robust system in all parts of the country, whereby if somebody does find themselves on the streets, then they are helped swiftly and given that ladder off the streets to safe and secure accommodation and given the mental health and and physical health support that they’ll need to begin to rebuild their lives.”

Jenrick, who was ousted as housing secretary last September to be replaced by Michael Gove, is in a unique position in Whitehall having seen the government’s homelessness strategy from the front and back benches.

He was the man who urged Boris Johnson to include the ambitious target to end rough sleeping in the 2019 Conservative manifesto.

Jenrick also presided over the Everyone In scheme, which protected rough sleepers in hotels and other emergency accommodation after the pandemic reached the UK in March 2020.

Now almost two years after the scheme kicked off, Jenrick told The Big Issue it is an initiative that he is still proud of to this day.

“It was an amazing achievement. It was the clarity of message that helped from central government because it was so simple,” he said.

“As a minister, it’s something that was a rare silver lining in the dark cloud of Covid. It’s widely accepted around the world as one of the best initiatives that any developed country did to help the homeless during the pandemic.

“The majority of people who came in off the streets have moved along that journey, some unfortunately have not and returned to the streets. And that’s a great shame, I suppose it’s not to be completely unexpected. And it shows that tackling rough sleeping is immensely challenging and complex.”

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The Everyone In scheme has been hailed as an imperfect solution but a success in the speed of response and building lasting partnerships between central government, local councils and frontline homelessness charities and organisations.

But while it has certainly had an impact on the number of people living on the streets, there is still some way to go for the Westminster government to hit its rough sleeping target.

Now he is no longer on the political frontline, Jenrick has not been shy in speaking about where weaknesses lie in the government’s approach. 

Last October, speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event, he said tackling street homelessness wasn’t “high enough on the agenda” of some government departments.

And Jenrick was frank about what needs to change to tackle rough sleeping for good. One such thing, of course, is a “chronic undersupply” of affordable homes. Housing First is also “absolutely critical”, the Newark MP added. 

The Prime Minister, I always found was very supportive,” he said. “As Mayor of London, he took a personal interest as you’d expect in homelessness and rough sleeping, and he’s knowledgeable about it. And its causes and complexity. He was always keen to support. Actually of all of the battles that I had with the Treasury this was not generally one of them.

“But of course, one of the challenges that those of us who are involved in rough sleeping face is that we’re just dealing with the results, we’re trying to fix things that have actually, in many cases, arisen elsewhere in the system.

“But it’s not where it needs to be. In particular, it’s not been given the level of priority I think it needs from the Department for Health, you really need them to be prioritising it.

“If you can bring health and housing together into a serious combined strategy, then we’ve got a shot at tackling this.”

The overriding lesson from the Everyone In scheme for Jenrick was that ending rough sleeping and tackling wider homelessness really does just come down to political will.

The austerity policies of the last decade were undoubtedly political decisions which drove street homelessness.

But there are tentative signs that this decade can bring a more compassionate approach. 

Since becoming a backbencher, Jenrick has continued to campaign on street homelessness. In recent weeks he has been exerting his own political will on Priti Patel and his successor Michael Gove in a bid to banish the Vagrancy Act from the statute book.

This week the government tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will see the almost 200-year-old law that criminalises rough sleeping finally axed.

“I think this was the first government for some time at least, certainly since 2010, to really take the issue seriously and give it the prominence and the political support that it requires,” said Jenrick.

“I’m still optimistic that we can make a lot of progress in this parliament. But what Everyone In I think taught me was that it ultimately all comes down to, or it’s heavily influenced by, how much political will is exerted.”

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