Opinion

Pledges to end homelessness collide with inconvenient truths

Despite government programmes to eradicate homelessness, the numbers keep going up. It's time to get serious

A person sleeping on the street

Image: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I have some good news. Homelessness will be ended soon. Which is something of a relief. The UK government is spending £2 billion over the next three years to get to its manifesto promise of ending rough sleeping by 2024. And if we have all learned anything about leading politicians in recent times, we know their word is their bond. So that’s all good. 

In Scotland, the government is spending £100 million as part of its Ending Homelessness Together fund to eradicate homelessness by some time around 2026. The Welsh government is also committed to ending homelessness. Pretty soon, things will be rosy. 

There are just a few snags to see to first. Homeless Link, the national membership charity for frontline homelessness organisations, found there were 39 per cent fewer accommodation providers and 26 per cent fewer bed spaces for people experiencing homelessness in England in 2021 compared to 2010. It seems that years of austerity slashing through vital budgets across society has had a detrimental impact. 

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This week, inconvenient truths came knocking. The number of people sleeping rough in London leapt up a third in a year. In Scotland, homelessness figures are at their highest since records began. Last year, 28,944 people asked their council for support with homelessness. Being kind, you could point to plans governments have made pre- and post-lockdown to get a grip. The Housing First policy for dealing with homelessness has had investment and has a future in Scotland. Last year they got to over 1,300 tenancies through the programme. They’ve banned evictions until the end of March. 

This has provided some security because the financial choking caused by the cost-of- living crisis is a reason for some of the mushrooming figures. People previously able to meet rents are struggling. But it’s a short-term fix. 

The Westminster government is putting quite a lot of money – £500m over three years – into beds for rough sleepers. And again, this is not to be sniffed at. But still numbers grow. And still it all feels like nibbling around the edge. There is clearly a desire among the governments to do something to address homelessness. But if they’re serious, really serious, they need to take serious leaps. 

Poverty doesn’t respect borders. Homelessness doesn’t respect borders. So the governments should cross them too. There needs to be a UK-level approach. There needs to a government of national unity, a specialist unit, that deals with homelessness and the causes of homelessness, that will share ideas, information, best practices and budget. It needs to be more swift in the emergency moment and needs to get deep into the root causes of poverty that drives people to homelessness and fear and insecurity. 

I can imagine several reasons in response – constitutional and financial – why this wouldn’t fly, why it’s a naive request. But the alternatives in play, while well intentioned, aren’t working. Lives are being irreparably damaged. There are still many miles left to run. 

Last year, as part of our Big Futures campaigning, The Big Issue came up with three simple asks for those in power: 

• Decent and affordable homes for all 

• Ending of low-wage economy and an investment in young people 

• Creation of green, well-paid jobs 

If there is a focus on these, the swirling eddies that lead to homelessness can be stayed. Is anybody close to power bold enough to do what needs to be done?  

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. 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.

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