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.