Opinion

The Tories vowed to end rough sleeping by 2024. They failed. So where are we now?

This government seems to have completely given up on tackling homelessness, writes Labour MP Paula Barker exclusively for Big Issue

Rough sleeping in the Strand, London

The Strand, London, in December 2023. Homelessness figures are rising, and Labour will need an ambitious strategy to reverse them. Image: Alex Lentati/LNP/Shutterstock

The Tory government not only promised us an end to rough sleeping by 2024, they vowed to scrap the Vagrancy Act and to bring in protections for renters that would end no-fault evictions. So, at the end of their current term in government, what is their record on tackling homelessness?

There were 4,266 people estimated to be sleeping rough on any single night in England in autumn 2019, at the end of 2023 the figure stands at an estimate of 2,893 people. While not on course to fulfil their promise to end rough sleeping, this seems like progress. Sadly, it is not. Although rough sleeping figures did go down at the beginning of this government’s term, it has been quickly rising again. And rough sleeping is only part of the picture.

Temporary accommodation has spiralled out of control, leaving councils across the country in turmoil trying to keep up with cost, and leaving families in cramped, unsuitable and often unsafe accommodation.

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Between April and June of this year, 105,750 households were in temporary accommodation, that includes nearly 140,000 children. That’s the highest number since records began 25 years ago. And it only seems to be getting worse. The number of households in B&B accommodation with dependent children has increased by 93.1% since last year.

The Renters Reform Bill, a suite of policies from this government designed to tackle the out-of-control private rented sector, was also meant to put an end to no-fault evictions this year, this would have helped in some part to curb the rapidly rising rate of households pushed into homelessness. However, a last-minute U-turn put an end to this. This year alone 8,747 people in England and Wales were served with a Section 21, otherwise known as a no-fault eviction.

It’s safe to say, this government seems to have completely given up on tackling homelessness, in November we had the then home secretary, Suella Braverman, claim that homelessness was a ‘lifestyle choice’ and announce a crackdown on the use of tents by people sleeping rough. And far from scrapping the Vagrancy Act, they are instead trying to push through the Criminal Justice Bill, also referred to as the Vagrancy Act 2.0.

The bill would give new powers to local authorities and police to crackdown on people sleeping rough or begging that they deem ‘likely’ to cause a nuisance. A dangerously vague definition which will punish those at the sharpest end of poverty. The powers would include being moved on, imprisonment and a fine of up to £2,500. Even harsher penalties than under the original Vagrancy Act.

The trauma that comes with being made homeless, whether you are sleeping rough or insecurely housed in temporary accommodation, is immense. Beyond the increased risk of death, people who sleep rough experience some of the most severe health inequalities and have much poorer mental health than the general population.

And for children stuck indefinitely in temporary accommodation, it’s not just their schooling that suffers, it’s their mental and physical health. Enough really is enough, this government should be ashamed of the legacy they are leaving behind.

The Labour Party must make tackling homelessness a key priority if they are elected to government next year. Our pledge to build 300,000 affordable homes a year is a brilliant first step, but it’s vital we go further than this. What we do in our first two years will be critical to the hundreds of thousands of people who are currently homeless.

Within the first 24 months, Labour needs to develop a comprehensive, cross-departmental strategy to end homelessness. This strategy should be spearheaded by a dedicated taskforce of experts from across the sector. This taskforce must be given the mandate and the resources to drive forward an ambitious agenda. It should coordinate across government to implement a robust and trauma-informed approach to ending all forms homelessness.

This must also go hand-in-hand with the implementation of a robust homelessness prevention strategy, coupled with improved data collection and analysis, to help identify those at risk of homelessness at an early stage and provide them with the necessary support before they fall into crisis.

It’s important to remember that behind all these statistics on homelessness are individual people who are living a nightmare every single day – it is the moral duty of those in power to put an end to this nightmare and provide the support necessary to get them back on their feet.  

Paula Barker MP for Liverpool Wavertree is co-chair of the APPG for ending homelessness and former shadow minister for rough sleeping and homelessness.

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