Opinion

Britain's homeless services are stripped to the bone, irrational, discriminatory and not fit for purpose

The extraordinary hoops people have to jump through to get housed by a local authority are unfair and inhumane, writes Daniel Lavelle.

Daniel Lavelle

Daniel Lavelle PHOTO: JOE YULE

Louis (not his real name), 18, was perched on a leather couch. He had a pale baby face topped with messy black hair; the rest of him was hidden underneath baggy sports gear. I would’ve believed you if you’d told me he was 14. I spoke to Louis in 2020.  Over a year earlier in February 2019, a week before his 18th birthday, he was forced to leave his parents’ home after a scuffle with a family member. 

Louis had been diagnosed with ADHD when he was young and had left school with no qualifications and as many job prospects. After his mum kicked him out, he visited Oldham’s Civic Centre to seek help with his housing, where he participated in Pauper Idol – officially known as a homelessness application. Louis’ audition wasn’t good enough for the judges. 

“I told them my situation, and they basically said to me, ‘[You’re] not a priority.’ And they wanted to know what bus stop I was staying at, and they were going to take pictures of me for three nights in a row staying there,” Louis explained. He didn’t know if the council came to photograph him, as he didn’t stay in one place during his time on the street. He moved around, roughing it on a roundabout outside Oldham town centre, in a field and on friends’ sofas. 

Louis eventually approached his aunt for help, and she housed him throughout the lockdown. He contributed £200 a month from his Universal Credit to her. But his aunt was pregnant, and Louis had to leave when she was about to give birth. He went into temporary accommodation and accessed Night Stop, emergency overnight accommodation provided by volunteers who host young rough sleepers in their homes, until finding more permanent lodgings in a hostel.  

In response to Louis’ claims about being told to pose for pictures at his bus stop, an Oldham Council spokesperson said:  “We do not comment on individual cases. However, we can confirm that this is not Oldham’s [sic] Council’s response to a young person presenting as homeless. There are a number of protocols in place to ensure that we are compliant and provide the best possible customer service. We do not take photographs of anyone sleeping rough – we are here to support anyone in Oldham that finds themselves homeless or at risk of homelessness.” 

I was in two minds about Louis’ story. Claiming that a council told you to pose for photographs at a bus stop to prove your homelessness is just the kind of thing that a mixed-up adolescent would make up. However, when looking back at my own experiences of homelessness, it didn’t seem that far-fetched. 

When I failed my homelessness audition a few years earlier, an adviser told me that I was homeless, but not homeless enough. I needed to show her that I would be worse off than her if she were homeless. Kafkaesque doesn’t cover it. 

I’d be even more incredulous about Louis’ story if it weren’t for what I know about Britain’s homeless services: fragmented, stripped to the bone, irrational, discriminatory and not fit for purpose.

Local connection laws prevent homeless people, especially rough sleepers who live chaotic, transient lifestyles, from getting help. These laws also discriminate against the Traveller community, who live a nomadic life and often don’t have local connections, and victims of domestic violence for whom it’s often unsafe to remain in their local area.  

I also wouldn’t have believed Louis if I didn’t know how councils behave when they think nobody is watching. Last year I contacted as many local homeless services as I could across England’s major cities and told them a version of Louis’ story. All of them, without exception, told me I was ineligible for help because I had no local connection.

Oldham asked me for my mum’s phone number so that they could verify my story. When I told them that I couldn’t provide those details because I didn’t have permission, they told me to wait around Oldham town centre, and a member of an outreach team would spot me and advise me about my options. 

Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis by Daniel Lavelle is out now (Headline Publishing, £18.99)

If the government truly wanted to end this wretched crisis, they would adopt the simple, tried and tested methods that have worked in countries with fewer resources than ours. They don’t have to look as far as Finland, which has eliminated rough sleeping with their Housing First method. All the big spaffer Johnson must do is look back at the success of his own policy Everybody In, passed during the first lockdown in 2020.

The policy lived up to its name and virtually eradicated rough sleeping from our streets. Local connections laws were gone along with other discriminatory hoops. Sadly, tents and sleeping bags have returned to city doorways. But Everybody In showed us what is possible. Homelessness and its precursors are complicated, but the solution is simple. All that’s lacking is the willingness to do it. 

I don’t know what happened to Louis after parting ways that afternoon. His prospects were not good. He’s from a poor background, has very little education and has a learning difficulty – without the proper support, I fear he might drop off the map altogether, or worse. None of this needed to happen and wouldn’t have happened if we took people’s fundamental human rights seriously.  

Daniel Lavelle is an investigative journalist who has experienced homelessness. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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