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Seeking shelter

Essay | 17 minute read
Why, in 21st-century Britain, is homelessness on the rise? What makes it happen in the first place, and what perpetuates the cycle? A writer speaks to the homeless and reflects on government policies and the effects of universal credit

‘Spending the night out of doors has nothing attractive about it in London,’ wrote George Orwell in his essay, ‘Beggars in London’, which was first published in the French newspaper, Le Progrès Civique, ‘especially for a poor, ragged, undernourished wretch. Moreover sleeping in the open is only allowed in one thoroughfare in London … there is one road where the homeless are allowed to sleep. Strangely, it is the Thames Embankment, not far from the Houses of Parliament. We advise all those visitors to England who would like to see the reverse side of our apparent prosperity to go and look at those who habitually sleep on the Embankment, with their filthy tattered clothes, their bodies wasted by disease, a living reprimand to the Parliament in whose shadow they lie.’

Orwell’s 1929 political essay still resonates, not least because two homeless people died in 2018 after falling ill outside Parliament. If you live in London, you won’t need to see the data to notice that homelessness is on the rise. Tube trains are often frequented by people asking for change to pay for a night shelter, sleeping bags clutter the doorways of the West End. People sit cross legged with cardboard signs outside stations.

Last year I started volunteering once a week at a homeless shelter. Over time you start to recognise patterns of how people have ended up coming through the shelter’s doors. A common story is that someone has gone on holiday to the UK to stay with a relative and the relative has thrown them out, perhaps not realising that they don’t have enough resources to be able to afford to stay in a hostel. Another is a sudden illness; another is loss of a job. Mostly now, as the national homeless charity, Crisis, says: ‘People lose their homes when the constant pressure from housing and living costs builds up and gets too much.’

It all comes down to lack of help in some form: if you have parents, or a partner, or caring friends, you can usually get by; they provide a safety net that will help carry you until you’re back on your feet. If you don’t have those connections — or even if you do — benefits should surely kick in to help you get back up on your feet. In a time when disconnection, loneliness and isolation are on the rise and benefits are being reduced, it is much easier to fall through the net and land on the street because there is no longer the layer of governmental support, and private landlords are just not sympathetic to tenants who can’t afford to pay their rent.

Back in 2010 when the Conservatives had just formed a coalition government with the Lib Dems, I wrote an article about how isolation and lack of support networks was the greatest contributor to homelessness. Homelessness wasn’t as visible then. Under the LibCon Coalition, SureStart Children’s Centres began closing from 2011, with ever incremental rises: 12 shut in 2011, 27 in 2012, 33 in 2013, 85 in 2014, and then, when the Conservatives came to power with a majority government in 2015, that number shot up to 156 in one year, according to the Pre-School Learning Alliance. Benefit caps and cuts to housing benefit, combined with a rise in the private rental market, are also major contributing factors from 2010 to now.

Since then, there has been a 60 per cent rise in households living in temporary accommodation, which includes 120,540 children, and a 134 per cent rise in rough sleepers, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). Crisis puts the current figure at 170,000 families and individuals who are stuck in the ‘worst forms of homelessness’, which includes being exposed to dangerous, vulnerable and life-threatening conditions.

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Homelessness has risen dramatically (236,000 in the UK, according to Crisis) with an average of three homeless people dying every week on UK streets since last October (Bureau for Investigative Journalism) and the number of homeless deaths has risen 24 per cent in five years (Office for National Statistics).

Despite these stark facts, the housing secretary, James Brokenshire, has denied that the rise is linked to government policies, despite a correlation between slashing support services like benefits and housing support, but then appeared to row back on this statement during a podcast interview with Politico, where he said the Conservatives ‘need to ask ourselves some very hard questions’ about why so many more people are now living on the streets than when they came to power, and admitted ‘changes to policy’ were needed.

Brokenshire’s original statement on the matter cited interrelated drug and alcohol abuse as a reason for people ending up homeless. But it’s not always a clear causal link. Sometimes the substance abuse comes later — after the homelessness — sometimes before. Ingrid Wright, Homelessness Services Manager at The YOU Trust told me in 2010 — and it still applies — that ‘Usually, once you’re on the streets, you start drinking or taking drugs to survive, but it can be a chicken and egg thing; sometimes the addiction comes first. Most people who drink have an underlying mental health issue and it’s only when you deal with the drinking or drug taking that the real issues resurface. It’s hard for us to imagine, but once people are living on the streets they often take drugs or drink as a means of self-medicating. They can’t afford to be mentally ill because it’s all about survival.’

In 2010, I spoke to multiple homeless charities and interviewed Big Issue sellers. I also hung about outside Victoria coach station, where lots of street sleepers used to congregate. I remember the men I met there who were sleeping under the draughty shelter of the coach building. Most were, by their own admission, mentally ill. They had a strong distrust of authority; some had been abused as children and ran away from home, some had had a sudden trauma and been unable to hold down work and then been too ashamed to ask for help when they really needed it. Most could pinpoint with eloquent clarity the moment it all went wrong.

‘A very common factor is social breakdown, where there is no-one able to support people,’ a spokesperson for Crisis told me back then. ‘A huge part of homelessness is about isolation, which becomes very destructive in itself.’

Having a social network furnishes you with soft skills like self-confidence, self-awareness and the ability to structure a day. If you become isolated, those skills fall away and make it even harder to find or retain work. Social breakdown is still a major reason for people becoming homeless today. As the charity, Homeless Link, pointed out in a recent report: ‘The most common reasons people give for losing their accommodation is that a friend or relatives are no longer able to provide support or because of relationship breakdown.’

But benefits cuts under the Conservatives haven’t helped the situation. Hannah Gousy, a policy and public affairs manager for Crisis, says: ‘While relationship breakdown can still be seen as a cause of homelessness, over the last four years, particularly in England, we have seen lack of support in housing, with private landlords setting rent at unaffordable levels. So the end of a tenancy has overtaken relationship breakdown as the top cause of homelessness in England – it’s been the top cause for the last five years.’

Crisis produced a report, ‘Everybody In: How to End Homelessness in Great Britain’ in June 2018, which highlighted how the number of rough sleepers in Britain had risen by 98 per cent since 2010 with more than 24,000 people sleeping  in cars, trains, buses or tents over Christmas.

In this report, produced in collaboration with researchers at Heriot-Watt University, Chartered Institute of Housing, National Housing Federation, and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC), Crisis gives the following example of someone with a mental health issue being at risk of becoming homeless:

‘Shelter helped a local authority tenant in Dorset with mental health needs who was hit by the cap when her disability benefits were stopped. She could not move to cheaper accommodation because other types of housing were more expensive. She struggled to pay her rent and was threatened with eviction. To make rent payments, she stopped eating and had lost so much weight that she was down to six stone.

‘Research by the Chartered Institute of Housing has shown that households unable to move into work have been forced to go without food, heating or buying clothes for their children, or have been falling into arrears because of the cap. The choice to go without heating or food to avoid falling into rent arrears may decrease the direct risk of homelessness, but should not be a choice a household has to make.’

Crisis’s plan for the government to end homelessness by 2027 involves the building of 100,500 social homes each year for the next 15 years to meet the needs of both homeless people and the wider cohort of people in Britain on low incomes – including those at risk of homelessness. It also recommends a Housing First policy, whereby homeless people are given homes which include a package of specialised support. Similar strategies to those suggested in the report have already been implemented in Finland and Canada, with encouraging economic and social results.

As a nation, our current policies for combating homelessness run along the following lines: people have to clean up their act and find work before they can be rewarded with accommodation.

The government, and I suspect some British citizens who haven’t come into contact with homelessness, take the view that people are to blame for their own misfortune and don’t deserve help unless they earn it. Logically, that makes sense. You don’t want to give houses to people who still have problems maintaining a job, a severe mental health condition that means they aren’t able to contribute to the workforce, or a substance abuse problem. But, they are under pressures that most people with homes and jobs simply do not have to cope with.

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“Crisis wants to ensure that people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness are not under those dual pressures,” says Gousy. “We want to help them keep up with rental payments and make sure no-one who is searching for a home is also searching for a job at the same time. If they are busy looking for a home, we have found, they often aren’t then keeping up their commitment to look for work and they are more likely to be sanctioned.”

And in fact, when people are given homes, engagement in support services increases and recovery rates from addiction are comparable to a ‘treatment first’ approach where they have to come clean before being able to access housing and benefits.

PwC has estimated the costs and benefits of the most targeted policies in the Crisis plan. They found that, over the next decade, these policies would cost £9.9 billion and deliver benefits worth £26.4 billion. This means that for every £1 invested, an estimated benefit of £2.70 would be generated.

I think it is hard for us as a nation to get our heads around the idea of solving homelessness by providing homes. As simple as the concept is, much of our current political rhetoric is about ‘hard-working families’, which implies that anyone who isn’t able to work is somehow not valuable and doesn’t deserve a reward in the form of a home.

I had some prejudices about homeless people that I didn’t even realise I had until I started working at a local homeless shelter. A part of me thought, without really realising it, that some character flaw, even if it was just stubbornness over asking for help, must have caused them to become homeless. But the more I speak to people at the shelter, the more I realise how close everyone is to ending up sleeping rough and that once you are homeless, it’s hard to change your circumstances and can feel like the world is against you. If you rent your home, you risk being evicted. If your income mostly comes from you being employed, you risk losing your job and becoming unable to keep up your payments.

One man I met who managed to fight his way back into accommodation and employment was an example of this. James* lost his job when the factory he worked at closed. He couldn’t pay the rent, was embarrassed to ask for help, so lost his home. He moved to a hostel and became very lonely and depressed. ‘I didn’t accept I was depressed,’ he said, ‘I’d always been fine before… I had a friend who gave me Methadone. I asked for it. I just wanted to get rid of the day.’ He then started smoking heroine and was addicted for three years.

‘I really was depressed by that time. I’d given up because I was embarrassed and ashamed of the way my life was. I felt alone and hopeless. I didn’t see a way out.’

I stayed in touch with James* for a while. He had a mobile phone and I would text him and then he would find a payphone and call me back. It got better. He got into a flat, earned some cash from Big Issue sales and then got into permanent work again. His network of friends grew. He got the support he needed.

The day-shelter I now volunteer at is run like a cafe in the mornings. We make toast and tea and give out razors and shower gel. People can take a shower and we’ll also wash their clothes for them. There are quite a few regulars and over time you get to know what’s going on in their lives. A man is writing a one-man show about his experiences, another makes music. One works as a carer, but is also ill himself and doesn’t earn enough to make ends meet.

Veronica* often visits the shelter. She became homeless after a stroke left her unable to work and then her housing benefit was suspended due to the change in her circumstance — that she was too ill to be able to look for work. Meanwhile, Terry* was living in private accommodation with his young autistic son, until a few weeks ago when his landlord evicted him. His son’s disorder means he requires routine and he is not coping with the disruption of living in a shelter.

You just need to become ill, lose your job, lose a loved one, and things start to unravel. A story I have heard more than once is: I broke up with my girlfriend or boyfriend and they threw me out of the house and they burnt all my paperwork. Another is: I was on holiday, staying with relatives, and they threw me out of the house. I can’t afford a hostel or to change my flight home. Another is: I became suddenly disabled or ill.

An NAO report in 2017 found that rents in England have risen at the same time as households seeing a cut to some benefits. Reforms to the local housing allowance are ‘likely to have contributed’ to making it more expensive for claimants to rent privately and ‘are an element of the increase in homelessness.’

‘In terms of what we see,’ says Gousy, ‘there are delays [to receiving funds] and that is putting people at greater risk. They are having to wait for five weeks. If you are homeless at that point and don’t have any savings then that creates real difficulty. That is why we are asking the Government to issue an advanced payment that they don’t have to pay back.’

While Universal Credit is intended to help the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, in its current state it has many problems.

Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, acknowledged this and hit pause on the rollout of Universal Credit this month, and the future of the benefit reform is now being debated in the news. ‘The announcement means that rather than extending Universal Credit they will have a pilot test on 10,000 people and that will be an opportunity to see if it is working,’ explains Gousy.

The pilot study is intended to find and eliminate problems with the system. If you are in that group of 10,000, or if your allowance status has changed and you have already been moved onto the Universal Credit system, you will be vulnerable to all of its quirks and delays. ‘We are also concerned about people transitioning from the current situation onto the Universal Credit system because during transition they have a gap of receiving no benefits,’ says Gousy.

I have met someone in this situation who was unable to pay rent as a result, and I’m sure for my one example there are many more. Crisis has called for JobCentres to have dedicated housing and homelessness specialists to prevent people applying for Universal Credit from falling into rent arrears and becoming homeless. Conservative MP Ben Bradley has written about the issue, saying that the aims of the Universal Credit system are ‘something to be proud of’ but that the aims currently fall short of reality. At present, people of ‘no fixed abode’ — as the Government forms state — are able to access an early payment, but it is a loan, and the rate at which it has to be paid back is quite high, which just adds to the person’s debt, and which simply reinforces their problems.

‘The Government has almost lost the plot’ said Caroline Slocock, who is the director of Civil Exchange, which helps government and the voluntary sector to work in new ways. On a BBC Radio 4 programme earlier this month, she said: ‘Look at Universal Credit… I don’t think anyone started out for it to actually create homelessness, to create hunger. As a welfare state initiative it is supposed to be stopping those things, but actually the delivery of it has resulted in a great deal of hardship. I think that is partly because the whole concept of the welfare state is being chipped away, and we have lost that sense that we are all in it together, which was the fundamental concept of the welfare state…

‘The government has been bad at delivering Universal Credit because the government simply does not listen. It doesn’t engage with the organisations, the charities, the people that understand how these things really work.’

On the same programme, Polly Mackenzie, the director of think-tank, Demos, and founder of the charity, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, added: ‘(former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) Iain Duncan Smith left and none who have replaced him really cares at all about welfare benefits.’

In my conversations with homeless people, I have learned that it is very difficult to pull back the loose threads of your life once they have come undone, without the burden of extra debt weighing you. It takes a great deal of organisation and energy and perseverance to meet the right people at the right times with the right forms. I have also learned that the file of paperwork required to fill in a Universal Credit form is two inches thick; that microwaved Frosties, covered in three spoons of sugar, will boost your energy after a disturbed night’s sleep; that there are never enough men’s boots in supply; that those little free samples of shampoo that you get in the pages of magazines aren’t useful to anyone. That some people are very grateful for small kindnesses and others will want you to do everything for them and still not be satisfied. That as many different personalities can be found in a homeless shelter as in the average office space. That people are just people, when you get down to it, some just have more difficult stories to tell.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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