It’s hard to imagine a more tragic end to a person’s life – without permanent shelter, without a place to call home and to die in those circumstances. It’s heart-breaking. And yet that was the fate of approximately 136 homeless Londoners across one year, right on our doorsteps.
Most of those people were sleeping rough or using emergency accommodation such as shelters and hostels, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which published the data. The estimated number of deaths per year in the capital remained relatively static in the five years to 2017, despite growing numbers of people forced into rough sleeping. But that is no cause for celebration, because it still means that nearly 650 Londoners have perished on our streets since 2013. The words “one is one too many” have never rung more true.
We find ourselves at a tipping point. Many, many Londoners speak of their horror at seeing an increasing number of people brutally coerced, through circumstance and state negligence, into homelessness. They want decisive action now to reverse this upward trend. And their sense of outrage and urgency is warranted. Because if we allow this incline to become entrenched we condemn others to the same sorry end.
Humanity must triumph over indifference. The incident at Sutton station earlier this month, in which staff threw a bucket of water over a homeless man, indicates that the clock is running down on this struggle. Of course, we must be honest about the challenge before us. Ending homelessness will be an uphill battle.
Rough sleeping in London has more than doubled since 2008-9, from 3,472 people that year, to 8,108 in 2016-17. We saw a slight decline in 2017, the first in more than a decade, but towards the end of last year the numbers began to rise again. And homelessness doesn’t start and end with people sleeping on the streets. Hidden homelessness, in which people find shelter in friends’ or family members’ homes, or in insecure accommodation such as squats, does not present itself in official figures. Beyond that are the more than 54,000 households in the capital living in temporary accommodation, which includes 87,000 children.
These figures are stark, but are we really to be surprised? Since 2010, vulnerable people across the capital have found themselves at the cold front of malicious welfare cuts. A National Audit Office report cited the end of private rented tenancies as the primary cause of homelessness. The research showed that welfare reforms, most notably the cap and freeze on local housing allowance, were making rents increasingly unaffordable.
Moreover, among the many pitfalls of Universal Credit there is growing evidence that it is a key contributor to homelessness. An investigation by the BBC found that council tenants claiming it owed on average £662.56, compared to £262.50 for those on housing benefit. Commenting on this, Bill Tidnam, chief executive Thames Reach, which runs homeless hostels across London, said: “We are seeing an increasing number of people experiencing real problems with the way Universal Credit is working for them. What this means in practice is that some people can’t pay their rent and lose accommodation and they stay homeless for longer because they are seen as risky by landlords.”
It should not surprise us, therefore, that the ruthless stripping away of state-provided safety nets has put vulnerable Londoners on a trajectory to misery. The conundrum now is how we turn this around.
At City Hall, the fightback is underway. Last June, Sadiq Khan published London’s first ever rough sleeping plan of action, which set out how the mayoralty will use its powers and resources to end rough sleeping. The Mayor currently spends £8.5 million per year on these services, including 24/7 outreach teams and No Second Night Out hubs.
Last year, City Hall invested £15 million in buying 330 homes for vulnerable Londoners at risk of becoming homeless. This winter saw Mayor Khan doubling the size of his street outreach team and increasing the frequency with which cold-weather shelters would be open. Londoners may also have spotted the new TAP London contactless donation points at 90 locations across the city, which allow them to donate to a coalition of 22 homelessness charities. Further investment was provided last month when the Mayor’s 2019-20 budget was passed by the London Assembly. It includes an additional £7 million to deliver immediate and long-term support for rough sleepers and improved winter provision.
Despite this, the continuing rise in rough sleeping shows that we have not yet turned a corner. For this, we need national government to come to the table. The Mayor’s action plan says that an injection of £574 million is required to fund a wide package of initiatives to finally end rough sleeping. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. It might be stating the obvious, but if we are to eradicate all forms of homelessness, then we need more homes. City Hall is investing £1 billion in delivering 11,000 much needed council homes, but London requires an annual injection of several billion pounds more in order to deliver the 42,000 new affordable homes we need each year.
There is no getting away from the fact that the true solution to this endemic issue is far greater government intervention. Frustration with its approach is undoubtedly best captured by Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, who said: “It’s a damning reflection of our society that night after night, so many people are forced to sleep rough on our streets – with numbers soaring in the capital – especially when we know that with the right commitment, rough sleeping could be ended for good.”