Brooks Newmark: How to eradicate the blight of rough sleeping once and for all by the end of this Parliament

16 Sep

Brooks Newmark was the MP for Braintree (2005-15), Minister for Civil Society (2014) and currently sits on the Government’s Roughsleepers Advisory Panel.

The recent annual figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) make sober reading. They show that in our capital alone there were 10,726 people sleeping rough between April 2019 and March this year, up from 8,855 last year and an increase of 21 per cent.

But worse still during the first quarter of the pandemic, people newly rough sleeping between April and June 2020 rose by 77 per cent compared to the same period last year.

As Jon Sparkes, the Chief Executive Officer of Crisis, the homelessness charity, said: “these figures reveal that pre-pandemic we were seeing record levels of people sleeping rough in our capital…and shows just how dire the underlying situation was even before the Coronavirus outbreak.”

Following the appointment of Louise Casey as Homelessness Czar in late March, the Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, and Ministerial team acted swiftly, and offered 90 per cent of rough sleepers, that outreach workers had identified throughout the country, temporary housing, many in hotel rooms and other accommodation.

This was part of the Government’s ‘Everyone In’ strategy, and clearly saved lives by both protecting some of the most vulnerable in our society and preventing the further spread of the disease.

With night shelters closed and the generosity of friends providing housing for ‘sofa surfers’ no longer available, the Government housed almost 15,000 people in England within weeks. This was a massive achievement, and showed that it is possible with the right political will to tackle the blight of homelessness, especially rough sleeping.

However, with the Government emergency programme coming to an end, we risk seeing a massive resurgence of rough sleeping on our streets. One of the biggest threats has been the end of the eviction ban. The Government recently addressed this problem by extending the notice period given by landlords to tenants to six months through to March 2021.

Further, local councils, notwithstanding the duty of care explicit in Bob Blackman’s Homeless Reduction Bill, are beginning to re-enforce the three horses of the apocalypse when it comes to homelessness: people being told they either have no local connection to the area; no priority need for help because they are not ‘vulnerable’ enough; or, no recourse to public funds, even if they have lived and paid taxes in the UK for years. Again, the Government has sought in part to address this by providing an extra £105 million to councils.

But a bigger problem looms which is the end of the furlough program, which in the words of Crisis, could result in tens of thousands being pushed into homelessness. This at a time when winter is approaching and the spread of Coronavirus is on the upswing again. The Government have a duty of care to the homeless who are without doubt some of the most vulnerable in our society.

So what is the solution?

In the short run, the Government needs to rehouse the remaining rough sleepers who are currently in emergency accommodation. Further, there are a number of examples of councils and devolved governments who can provide best practices.

Liverpool City Council brought together all the housing associations that collectively are providing a central data base of housing availability, and giving a priority to rough sleepers and those who have found themselves homeless. As a result, Liverpool has all but eradicated rough sleeping in the City, and has closed its night shelter. The devolved Government in Wales has also shown the way by removing all legal restrictions from local councils and providing more funding per capita to address the problem. The result: Wales today literally only has a small handful of individuals, primarily those with complex needs who are still on the street.

If the Government is to prevent a tsunami of homelessness in 2021, it needs to have a robust homelessness prevention strategy in place before year-end, and should look to those parts of the United Kingdom where the issue is being addressed effectively.

This in essence means more money to councils to address the problem at the same time as more teeth to legislation to ensure councils do not revert to the bad old days of drawing on the arcane rules of intentionality, no local connection and priority need.

In the medium term, the Government should provide the support and funding to the Housing First Program. In 2017, I wrote a report at the Centre for Social Justice entitled Housing First: Housing led Solutions to Rough Sleeping and Homelessness’.

Its recommendations from twere adopted by the then Secretary of State for Housing, Sajid Javid, and Theresa May. There has now been a pilot of Housing First for the past three years in three city regions: West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Liverpool. The evidence is clear: for those rough sleepers and others who are homeless with complex needs, Housing First works, with recidivism almost negligible. In 2021, the Government should roll out 16,000 Housing First units nationwide.

In the longer term, the Government needs to roll out more social housing. While the Government should be applauded for its £12 billion Affordable Homes Programme which will provide up to 180,000 new homes across the country and a new Right to Shared Ownership, this is different than Social Housing, a point recently made by Polly Neate, the Chief Executive of Shelter and earlier made by the new MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger (who also worked in 10 Downing Street for Johnson) in an article on this site in July.

Kruger says the Government must “make a major new investment in building genuinely affordable social homes – not least for those millions of families living in poor private rented housing or temporary accommodation.”

The Prime Minister has a strong track record in seeking to address the blight of rough sleeping, especially when he was Mayor of London, with such schemes as ‘No Second Night Out.’ He has also shown a strong commitment to addressing the homelessness problem with his swift response to house over 15,000 rough sleepers and those in temporary accommodation at the start of the Covid crisis.

But if the Government is to maintain its momentum in this area, it needs to have a clear prevention strategy in place by year-end, provide a clear framework for local councils with more funding in place to provide housing for those most at risk of homelessness, and it needs to roll out the Housing First Programme nationally to provide both the homes and support for those with complex needs.

This Government has an immense opportunity to build on the good work of Johnson, Jenrick and Casey, until recently the Homelessness Czar, but it needs bold action and strong leadership now if it is to achieve its ambition to eradicate the blight of rough sleeping once and for all by the end of this Parliament.

Rough sleeping has fallen sharply. The challenge is to stop it rising again.

9 Jul

Ending rough sleeping poses a particular challenge in a free society. That is because it is not only a matter of making help available, but of persuading those who need it, to accept it. Another complication is that the help required goes beyond accommodation. The lack of a bed to sleep in is invariably a symptom rather than the cause of an individual’s difficulties.

The coronavirus prompted greater urgency for the Government to take action. Ministers had already outlined in February a determination to find a long term solution – with the assistance of Dame Louise Casey.

Though this issue is a moral disgrace and source of national shame the numbers involved are relatively small. The latest snapshot survey for those sleeping rough on one particular night last autumn came up with a figure of 4,266. The BBC gave a figure of 28,000 (based on FOI requests to local authorities) of different people who had slept rough at one stage or another over 12 months.

How many have come off the streets during the coronavirus crisis? 15,000 have been provided emergency accommodation – though not all of those were rough sleepers. Some are from hostels and shelters which have had to close due to social distancing rules. Others will be those who would otherwise have got by as “sofa surfers”. There will also be those escaping domestic violence. However, there might also be around 5,000 who came straight from the streets.

What is impressive is how high the acceptance rate has been from the rough sleepers offered a room. Many have been surprised it has been so high. Only a few hundred are thought to have spurned an offer. It could be the attraction of a hotel rather than a more humble shelter. It could be fear of the coronavirus. Then there is the tough choice that getting food – or the money to buy food – while staying on the streets would be harder. As noted, coercion is not available, but the tone of encouraging people to accept help has been emphatic rather than passive.

Amidst the statistical fog, a couple of points emerge. Firstly, that in proportion to the population, the number of rough sleepers was already tiny. The population of England is 56 million. It follows that accommodating them is a relatively modest claim on the public purse. Providing for others – children, pensioners, the unemployed, the disabled – are vastly more costly items. Secondly, that the already small number sleeping on the streets before the pandemic has fallen substantially.

Dame Louise says in an interview for The Big Issue:

“I was due to do a review into rough sleeping and homelessness but we have all been turned upside down by Covid-19. The primary motivation so far was led by Covid-19 to do an extraordinary thing in unprecedented times, which was to say, “Let’s just get everyone in.” We had everybody getting on the phone to hotels, getting [charities] St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Look Ahead in London to stand up enough staff to literally in a couple of weeks add to the estate in London by 2,000 beds.

“We were chasing the virus just trying to stay ahead of it. When the inquiry eventually comes saying: “How did you do it? Why did you do it? And what choices did you make?” We just went for it, everybody went for it. We had to get everybody in, we cannot have people dying on the streets. And we cannot have people dying in communal night shelters and that is the prospect that we were facing. We need to be clear that right now we are dealing with this extraordinary situation where 15,000 people have been accommodated at this time.

“I’m not saying that we don’t want to work out how do we not return to the situation that we have seen in the last few years. But our primary purpose so far has been to keep people safe. That will remain our primary purpose, but at the same time we feel that we should see this as an opportunity to think that we can get something extraordinary out of this but that will take an extraordinary effort. The homelessness sector itself and the wider community also needs to think, at this horrific time in our nation’s history, what they can do to help as opposed to what they call on the government to do.”

Jeremy Swain, the Government’s adviser on homelessness, was also interviewed. He said:

“I was involved with Housing First in the 1990s and I’m a big fan, but the problem is there is a slight danger that we think that everybody in those hotels at the moment needs wraparound support and they need it for a long time. What we need to be doing, as well as getting people into housing, is to get people into work. And that is what they are wanting. That’s what they want – when I was at Thames Reach and you put out the questionnaires, 75 per cent of people wanted the services to help them get jobs. Consistently it is bottom of the list for the homelessness sector when for the people themselves it is top of the list.”

That is the tricky part. Amidst Government spending of £850 billion a year, funding an extra 5,000 hostel beds is a footling item. (That’s even before we consider the £10 billion a year we give to charity, often to help the homeless.) Getting those who have taken a wrong turn in life back on the path to proud, independent, and responsible existence is harder. Getting a job would be a pretty obvious ambition. Often that will mean overcoming such afflictions as drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I found that very little specialist accommodation was provided – even though the Council had a very substantial Public Health budget which was largely wasted.

Many of those in emergency accommodation have been put up in hotels that would otherwise be empty. It is welcome that hotels are going back to normal business as the economy reopens. That does mean that alternative places to stay are needed – though some hotels are extended their contracts for emergency accommodation. Some universities have made rooms available in their halls of residence – after all college authorities need the money and these rooms would otherwise be empty at present. Some YMCA hostels have single rooms. Then councils have managed to find rooms for some in the private rented sector.

In the long term though, the Government plans new hostel places for 6,000. Much of this will be for specialist housing to cater for particular medical conditions. That will be crucial for these unfortunate souls to have their lives turned around.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” declared Winston Churchill. The signs are encouraging with respect to the impact of the pandemic on rough sleeping. A passive response from the authorities to those sleeping in shop doorways and along underpasses is no longer acceptable. Most of those people have already made some reconnection with society and there is every chance that it will not be broken.