The government's rough sleeping strategy is aiming to make sight like this one on London's Oxford Street a thing of the past. Image: Flickr / Cliff Judson
It was almost three years ago that Boris Johnson was elected on a Conservative manifesto promising to end rough sleeping by 2024. Only now, as he hands over to Liz Truss, do we have the plan to do it.
The long-awaited rough sleeping strategy was unveiled on Saturday, promising to invest £500million into the Rough Sleeping Initiative over three years to provide 14,000 beds for rough sleepers and fund 3,000 staff to provide support.
There will also be an extra 2,400 long-term supported homes for people with the most complex needs under a new £200m Single Homelessness Accommodation Programme. That will see support for prisoners and young people, while the Housing First pilots that have been running in Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands since 2018 will be extended.
Rough sleeping minister Eddie Hughes, the only minister at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Local Communities who survived the exodus as Boris Johnson’s government fell, said the government will “pull every lever at our disposal” to hit the target.
He said: “When I worked at YMCA Birmingham, I saw first-hand how the right support can help people turn their life around. We’re making great progress and this strategy is hugely important step towards ending rough sleeping for good.”
However, Lisa Nandy, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, criticised the government for releasing the strategy just as Truss was about to replace Johnson at 10 Downing Street.
“Rushing out a last ditch strategy hours before leaving office is chaotic, insulting and does nothing to provide reassurance to thousands of people facing a long hard winter,” said Nandy.
“Rough sleeping has risen 38 per cent since the Tories took office and evictions have soared this year. Without urgent action, Britain faces the horrifying prospect of a significant rise in street homelessness.
“We need a serious, workable plan to ensure everybody has a safe and secure place to live, not another press release that is destined for the bin in just a few days’ time.”
Here are six takeaways from the 120-page strategy.
1. We finally have a definition of what ending rough sleeping actually means
While there has been plenty of talk about ending rough sleeping for good throughout Johnson’s reign – there’s never really been any clear indication of what that means.
After all, rough sleeping is a complex issue and it is unlikely the UK will ever see a situation where no one is on the streets – there will likely always be someone who suffers a relationship breakdown or ends up on the streets at short notice.
The rough sleeping strategy acknowledges there is no “universal definition” of what ending rough sleeping actually means. So the strategy now lays out a “clear and defined vision”, namely “that it is prevented wherever possible, and where it does occur it is rate, brief and non-recurrent”.
2. Becoming a world leader
The strategy starts out with a bold declaration: “We want this country to be a world leader in its approach to ending rough sleeping”.
It’s an ambitious target. The report also says the rate of rough sleeping in England compares well internationally. Based on the official rough sleeping snapshot, there were four people sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2021 for every 100,000 people in England. That compares to three people per 100,000 people in South Korea and Japan, which has comparable data collection methodologies and the lowest rates globally, the report notes.
This sounds like good progress but it comes with caveats. The official count to find out how many people are sleeping rough involves councils and frontline teams counting the amount of people they see on a single night or providing an estimate.
The method has been questioned in the past with industry figures noting that the London CHAIN figures that track rough sleeping over time are considered more accurate. The most recent figures there show that there was a 10 per cent rise in the number of people spotted on the street between April and June.
If the UK wants to remain a world leader in tackling rough sleeping, this strategy will need to get to work quickly.
3. The political will might well be across the whole of government
If there is one thing that came out of Everyone In, the government’s scheme that brought rough sleepers indoors during the pandemic, it is that joined-up working is a must.
Rough sleeping minister Hughes told the Big Issue earlier this year “lots of the good stuff has remained” from Everyone In in terms of the relationship between government departments and tackling homelessness as both a housing and homelessness issue.
A more transparent and joined-up system is one part of the four-pronged approach to ending rough sleeping, alongside prevention, intervention and recovery. To underline this, there is a joint-ministerial foreword from eight cabinet ministers, including housing secretary Greg Clark, health secretary Steve Barclay and justice secretary Dominic Raab.
With political will so often identified as an issue in tackling homelessness, perhaps this “whole system approach” can change that.
4. There is a much-needed focus on prevention
Another lesson from the Everyone In scheme is that while you can provide a place of shelter for people on the streets at a drop of a hat, stopping others from taking their place is just as important.
It’s also an area where the cost of living crisis poses the biggest challenge
The government has promised a “prevention first” approach. That means fully embedding the Homelessness Reduction Act with the backing of £316m to prevent homelessness during 2022/23. It was research from the Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign that influenced the funding.
Ministers also said they will bring forward investment to ensure no one leaves a public institution to go on to the streets. There is a particular focus on prison leavers with the promise of transitional accommodation and wider support as well as a Single Homelessness Accommodation Programme to help vulnerable people, such as young care leavers, with housing and support.
5. Will the homes be delivered?
The existing £11bn Affordable Housing Programme promised to build thousands of homes to help tackle the housing crisis. It includes 180,000 new homes across England, as well as 6,000 long-term supported homes.
But with record house prices and rent prices thanks in part to a shortage of supply, that might be little comfort to people who are struggling to afford rent right now.
It’s also unclear whether the government will stick to housing targets. Truss described the previous target to build 300,000 homes per year as “Stalinist”.
It will take time to judge whether she will deliver the homes the country needs but making housing more affordable will have a big say on whether rough sleeping can be prevented.
Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, said “tackling our severe lack of affordable homes” could make or break the strategy, nothing that it will be a “wasted opportunity” to end rough sleeping without it.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, shared the need for a focus on affordable housing.
“It’s good that this strategy recognises that, fundamentally, not being able to afford anywhere to live is the main driver of homelessness,” she said. “And it’s disappointing that it does next to nothing to address it. In the face of a major crisis – with people already struggling to keep the lights on and pay their rent – this plan is wholly inadequate.”
6. The cost of living crisis is the elephant in the room
The cost of living is mentioned five times in the 120-page report, mostly in relation to what the government has already announced to help people. Truss has already said more support is on the way, reportedly looking to freeze energy bills.
But it is pretty clear that without extensive support, there is going to be a rise in homelessness. The strategy notes the government will “support tenants with the cost of living by ensuring rent increases are predictable and fair” through rent reforms and tackle supply issues through the Affordable Housing Programme.
At a time of record rents, rising energy bills and inflation, will that be enough? The crisis will likely test the strategy to its limits.
Scotland has already gone big. Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday announced a rent freeze and eviction ban until at least March for all private and social tenants in Scotland due to the cost of living crisis.
Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link, said: “We must also be realistic that the cost of living crisis is going to force more people into homelessness. Our members across the country are already seeing increased demand for their services and increased running costs. We will be working with the government and our member organisations to come with solutions to this issue, building on the funding and ideas within this strategy.”
In the meantime, there are things the government can do, such as unfreezing housing benefit to reflect rents as Crisis and Shelter have urged and following Sturgeon’s lead.
Either way, the government has promised progress will be tracked with the Rough Sleeping Advisory Panel set to provide an annual update on delivery progress to the government with ministers set to publish data every quarter.
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