Opinion

The homelessness crisis cannot continue: Are the major parties' promises enough to tackle it?

Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems are a mixed bag on homelessness. Whoever wins the next general election must act fast to get a grip of rising homelessness, writes Homeless Link's Rick Henderson

homelessness

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have all laid out their plans to tackle homelessness. Image: Colin Davis / Flickr

After digesting the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos, I found myself wrestling with the slightly paradoxical feeling of being both encouraged and slightly underwhelmed by their respective offerings on homelessness.

Everyone needs a safe place to live and the support they need to keep it. No one should have to experience the hardship and indignity of homelessness. But rough sleeping rose by 27% in 2023 and 60% over the past two years. Meanwhile a record number of people, including over 145,000 children are currently experiencing homelessness, trapped living in temporary accommodation, often in squalid and overcrowded conditions.

These are people, let down by systems that should protect them, unable to achieve their potential, their lives blighted by insecurity. The next government can and must act to change this.

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That’s why we have today joined more than 50 other homelessness organisations in writing to Rishi Sunak, Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Ed Davey urging them to take decisive action on the issue should they lead the next government.

I was encouraged that all three manifestos make commitments to work towards ending homelessness and rough sleeping, showing the parties recognise its prevalence and the need for decisive government action to end it. But I was also left with a feeling that, at the moment, they all lack the clear vision that many in the homelessness sector were hoping to see.

One real positive is the heartening consensus between Labour and the Liberal Democrats on the need for a cross-government approach to homelessness. From health to work and pensions, homelessness cuts across many departments, so preventing and ending it cannot be the responsibility of just one government department.

In fact, when government departments work in silos, they often take decisions that increase homelessness. One recent example is the Home Office’s decision to change the eviction process for people recently granted refugee status, which led to a 965% increase over six months in people sleeping rough after leaving asylum accommodation. That’s why a cross-government homelessness task force is one of four key asks in our (Homeless Link’s) Manifesto to End Homelessness.

In terms of Labour specifically, should they form a government, I am looking forward to the concrete proposals that they will develop as part of the cross-government strategy and I am particularly encouraged this will involve national and local government working together.

The manifesto also has several policies that will help in turning off the homelessness tap, a major social housing building program and ending ‘no fault’ section 21 evictions to name two. But I was slightly disappointed that the leaked report the party were considering a national Housing First program, where people experiencing homelessness with significant overlapping support needs are given unconditional housing and support, didn’t materialise. But I remain hopeful it’s still very much on the table.

Meanwhile, the Conservative manifesto has a less specific commitment to “continue with our plans to end rough sleeping and prevent people from ending up on the streets in the first place, after making significant progress over the last few years.” Although, I’m not sure many would agree that the picture outlined at the top of this article represents “significant progress”.

Overall, it is the Liberal Democrats who have set out the most specific policies. These include the above mentioned cross-government plan, a commitment to ending rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament, scrapping the Vagrancy Act (which makes rough sleeping a criminal offence) and introducing a legal duty to ensure that everyone who is at risk of sleeping rough is provided with emergency accommodation alongside an assessment of their needs. They are also the only party to address the way the immigration system creates homelessness, through promising to increase the move on period for refugees leaving Home Office accommodation to sixty days and expanding access to immigration legal advice.

But if the polls are correct and Labour do win in a sizeable majority on 4 July their in-tray will be huge, bringing with it the risk that homelessness might fall down the pecking order. Therefore, a lot will rest on the proposals their new cross-government strategy puts forward. I hope these will show the ambition needed to end homelessness through expanding evidence-based solutions like Housing First, whilst embedding long-term ring fenced funding for homelessness services.

Safe to say, we in the homelessness sector know what needs to be done and will be pushing whoever forms the next government to act, because the current situation simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Rick Henderson is CEO at Homeless Link, the membership body for frontline homelessness services in England.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

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