Anger can quickly turn to apathy when people feel powerless to induce change. We’re in danger of entering this territory when it comes to homelessness.
Londoners have exhibited their humanity in response to rising rough sleeping by volunteering in their thousands for outreach teams and donating almost £250,000 last winter to homeless charities. But as the number of people sleeping in doorways or couch surfing continues on its upwards trend, there is a serious risk of it becoming normalised. And when something becomes part of the fabric of our society, we can stop noticing it. Fury at the unfairness of such a plight makes way for seeming indifference.
The increase in homelessness across the country is almost entirely attributable to austerity – in particular, cuts to local authority budgets and services and the slash and freeze of housing benefit. What is worrying is that the very person who could have the biggest influence on tackling homelessness – our new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson – presided over its doubling in the capital during his second term as Mayor of London.
His successor has addressed that vacuum of political impetus. Last year, Sadiq Khan set aside an annual budget of £8.5 million for homelessness services. In February this year, he added a further £7 million to that pot. This has triggered a significant departure from the complacency of the past, with City Hall doubling the size of its homeless street outreach team and acting to increase access to cold weather and hot weather shelters. And all of this is in addition to the £15 million it has invested in buying 330 properties to provide quality homes for vulnerable Londoners at risk of becoming homeless.
Londoners have rallied behind these endeavours, donating through the TAP London contactless donation points introduced by the Mayor at 90 locations across the city last Christmas. The capital shines as a brilliant example of how, where political and public will align, significant steps can be taken to hamper austerity and advance an agenda of equality.
But there remains a harsh truth to confront. The financial investment required to eradicate homelessness far eclipses the resources available to London. Indeed, the Mayor’s Rough Sleeping Plan of Action, published last year, identifies the need for £574 million over five years to end rough sleeping here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, calls for additional funding from Westminster have, until recently, been met with radio silence from the very same government that insulted the intelligence of the British public with repeated claims that austerity is over. The recent spending review saw it come forward with £54 million to tackle homelessness for the entire country. Whilst this is at last a small step in the right direction, at less than 10 per cent of what the capital alone needs it is far too little.
This unwillingness to commit to addressing homelessness presents an unprecedented risk to those sleeping rough on our streets. It’s worth remembering at this point that the number of rough sleepers in London reached almost 9,000 last year and that during that period 136 homeless Londoners died. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for On London highlighting how the true catalyst to solving this sorry situation is government intervention. But its actions since then do not fill me with hope that such positive intervention will happen.
Meanwhile, the likelihood of a no deal Brexit is ever increasing. Its anticipated damaging impacts have been well documented. Its very worst effects will be on the very vulnerable and among the most vulnerable will be those European Union citizens living on our streets, who now account for over a third of rough sleepers in the capital.
This isn’t “Project Fear” as those unwilling to face up to the folly and danger of no deal will undoubtedly protest. These concerns have their roots in the approach to migrant rough sleepers which formed under the government’s condemned “hostile environment” policy of recent years.
This is said to involve the Home Office attempting to work with charities and local authorities to deport non-citizen rough sleepers and comes despite the High Court ruling in 2017 that such a policy is illegal. The Mayor recently confirmed that services supported by the Greater London Authority would have no part in passing on information about individual rough sleepers without their permission. Haringey and Islington Councils have echoed this sentiment.
And yet a no deal Brexit could undermine protections for vulnerable EU citizens. There is a major added concern, strongly set out in a 2017 Crisis and Homeless Link report, that EU rough sleepers, caught up in the mess that will be no deal, could find themselves deterred – perhaps through fear of deportation – from accessing vital public services.
All of this is taking place right under our noses. I frequently hear Londoners despair at the rate at which we are seeing rough sleeping increase and their feelings of being powerless to do anything about it. We face a crisis. While the horrors of no deal will be distributed somewhat unevenly, there are few who will get away unscathed.
I have no doubt that Londoners will continue to go above and beyond to help those without shelter. But I repeat my assertion that the biggest and most necessary catalyst for addressing homelessness must come from a sea change in central government policy. With a new Queen’s Speech on the horizon, the Prime Minister has an opportunity to trigger that change. The question is will he take it or will he turn a blind eye as he did during his tenure at City Hall.
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