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Opinion

Homelessness has exploded since I slept on the streets. Here's how to end it once and for all

Politicians can break an endless cycle of doom and misery for thousands living in homelessness, writes Matthew Torbitt. The solutions aren't as mysterious as they seem

When I was born in 1991 there was just under 60,000 households in temporary accommodation, and when I was homeless as a teenager there was under 50,000. Today that figure stands at a staggering 109,000 with 142,000 children with no permanent home to call their own. Eating their dinner at the end of a bed and breakfast bed, no space to do homework, no room to play, no friends to play out with. 

Coupled with that, more than 4,000 people will bed down tonight in doorways, bus shelters, alleyways and street pavements. Each one will be living with the anxiety and trauma of shuffling feet making their way closer towards them, drunk or angry voices getting louder in volume until it is upon them, almost suffocating them, their bodies tense waiting for the all too familiar feeling of a kick to the ribs or the cruel laughter bellowing out as they are urinated on. 

This isn’t conjecture, this isn’t melodramatic or histrionic. This is the daily reality for many thousands of people waking up to their worst nightmare over and over again. Trapped in what feels like an endless cycle of doom and misery with no obvious route out. 

Thousands of children have no home of their own, writes Matthew Torbitt. Image: Supplied

As Sadiq Khan secures a historic third term as mayor of London, his promise to end rough sleeping by 2030 stands as a beacon of hope in the fight against homelessness. Meanwhile, the Conservative government faces scrutiny for its failure to fulfil its manifesto pledge of ending rough sleeping by 2024 and its alarming move towards criminalising homelessness through the Criminal Justice Bill. The stark contrast between these two approaches highlights the deep-rooted challenges and ideological divides that continue to hinder progress in addressing homelessness.

Amidst the political posturing and rhetoric, the fundamental question remains: do any politicians truly have the answers to end homelessness, or is it all just hot air?

On one side of the political spectrum, we have Khan’s bold commitment to tackling rough sleeping head-on. His pledge to eradicate rough sleeping within the next decade reflects a recognition of the urgency and severity of the homelessness crisis. However, lofty promises alone are not enough to solve this complex issue. Khan’s vision must be backed by concrete actions and robust policies to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

On the other hand, the Conservative government’s approach raises serious concerns about its commitment to compassionate and effective solutions. The proposed measures in the Criminal Justice Bill, which target “nuisance rough sleepers”, demonstrate a worrying trend towards punitive measures rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness. Such draconian policies only exacerbate the marginalisation and suffering of vulnerable individuals.

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The reality is that there are no easy solutions to this multifaceted issue. However, there are proven strategies and innovative approaches that offer a glimmer of hope.

One such approach is the Housing First model, pioneered by Finland and successfully trialled in parts of the UK including Greater Manchester, the West Midlands, and Liverpool. Housing First prioritises providing stable and permanent housing to individuals experiencing homelessness, coupled with wraparound support services to address their complex needs. This approach recognises that housing is a basic human right and a fundamental step towards stability and recovery.

In addition to Housing First, there is a pressing need for increased investment in social housing under a rebranded “community housing” initiative. By prioritising the development of affordable and accessible housing options, we can provide long-term solutions for individuals and families at risk of homelessness.

Furthermore, preventative measures are crucial in addressing homelessness before it reaches crisis point. This includes early intervention programs, financial assistance for at-risk households, and support services to prevent eviction and homelessness.

To drive progress at a national level, there is a compelling case for establishing a dedicated office for ending homelessness. This office would coordinate efforts across government departments, develop evidence-based policies, and monitor progress towards ending homelessness.

Moreover, devolving powers to metro mayors and local authorities is essential in tailoring solutions to the specific needs of communities. This could include granting metro mayors the authority to pause the right to buy scheme in the short term to prevent further loss of social housing stock.

Ending homelessness requires a comprehensive and coordinated approach that transcends political divides. It demands big and bold ideas, grounded in compassion, empathy, and a commitment to social justice. As we navigate the challenges ahead, let us strive for a future where everyone has a place to call home.

Matthew Torbitt is a homelessness campaigner and parliamentary advisor for Labour MP Christian Wakeford.

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