At the close of 2017, it was estimated that one in every 200 people across England were homeless or living in inadequate housing conditions. On my walk each morning into LSE I lose count of the people wrapped in dirty sleeping bags or threadbare coats, lying or sitting on the pavements. The bodies of the homeless line almost every street that I turn down. Some of them are old, some of them are young, some women, some men, some children. I used to see the same man at 8am every morning, who sat in the same spot on Waterloo Bridge. We would say good morning, smile, and I could hardly bear to walk past him because I knew he would sit there all day, in the cold, whilst I went to classes, saw friends, and returned home to a warm flat that I could call my own.
Over the Christmas vacation, whilst I was at home, he disappeared; I don’t see him anymore, and someone else sits in his place. I see people sleeping in the middle of the day, their legs sticking out of phone boxes, doorways, street corners, heads propped up against dustbins because it is safer to sleep in broad daylight. Amongst the testimonies of many different people who have faced, or are facing, homelessness, Crisis published the story of Pete, a man who was subject to numerous counts of violence from members of the public, simply for being homeless. Similarly, whilst being interviewed about the death of his homeless friend who passed away last December, on a night where the temperature stood at -0.8 C, a homeless man called Paul told of how he had ‘learned to sleep with one eye open…’ after experiencing abuse whilst living and sleeping on the streets.
I have seen people crying, shouting for help, sitting silently in squalor in the rain whilst the world walks past without so much as a backward glance; people without gloves or scarves in the sub-zero temperatures of winter, people without shoes and their feet caked in dirt as they walk the lengths of a tube asking for food. I see human beings without a home in every part of London; and this December I saw people in the town that I grew up in, in the countryside, sleeping on pavements as the snow fell. Nothing, except the incredible poverty and inequality that they face, makes any of those human beings different to me.
Against a backdrop of soaring rent prices, shortages of social housing and temporary accommodation, the introduction of universal credit, and a frozen reduction of the local housing allowance benefit, 300,000 people in the world’s fifth richest economy live without a home. An estimated 120,000 of these people are children. A dearth of resources at the level of local government and the challenge that central government faces in trying to regulate prices set by private landlords contribute to the complex issue of homelessness. A recent longitudinal study commissioned by the charity Crisis found that homelessness induced by the increasingly expensive private rent sector rose from less than 5,000 people in 2010 to almost 18,000 people in 2017.
The tension between a poverty of affordable housing and a booming rent sector constitutes the backcloth of ‘competing interests in a very challenging structural climate’ that the government is tasked to work within. Crisis’ annual report further states that if the government fails to implement an immediate strategy of action, the current figures on homelessness are set to rise to 575,000 people by 2041. It goes on to estimate that the incidence of rough sleeping will increase by 76% in the next ten years alone.
These figures establish with desperate clarity a truth that we no longer have the luxury of ignoring: many, not a few, people in this country are forced to live without a home. In the last quarter of 2017, The Independent revealed that the number of people who were homeless or living in inadequate conditions in England exceeded the population size of the city of Newcastle. The critical nature of the situation is such that a newly established charity, Action Hunger, has begun installing vending machines with essential items for homeless people to access, the first of which now operates in the city of Nottingham.
It is therefore of great concern that official statistics often fail to capture the true extent of the current homelessness crisis; researchers collecting data on homelessness face difficulties posed by Britain’s “hidden homelessness”. The hidden homeless, such as those “sofa surfing” in the attempt to remain sheltered, accounted for 62% of those surveyed on a single night according to a report published in 2011. Crisis’ 2017 report estimates that the number of adults in ‘concealed household units’ stands at around 3.34 million people, constituting an increase of one third since 2008.
Informal investigative findings, such as the publication of grassroots testimonies, challenge the inaccurate image of homeless people as one homogenous group and dispel the obsolete idea that homelessness is a failure of the individual. Among England’s modern impoverished, deprived and homeless are those who maintain stable positions of employment: this includes nurses, council workers, and teaching staff. This reality distorts and discolours traditional narratives that make casual connections between employment and security; today, a salary does not guarantee shelter.
George Orwell’s criticism of the distinction between begging and socially accepted forms of work in Down and Out in Paris and London can be reworked with disturbing consequences in modern Britain; today, individuals who maintain stable positions of employment can be, and are, forced into homelessness. In December 2017, The Times told the story of a full-time teaching assistant who was homeless; it also highlighted other accounts of professionals facing homelessness, such as an accountant working in the city of London. Similarly, The Guardian has published a range of accounts of homeless people, including a piece by a columnist for the newspaper who recounted her experience amongst the hidden homeless as a young woman.
Homelessness as a human rights violation
The tragic scale of the current housing crisis forces into plain view the truth that there is not one type of homelessness or homeless person; homelessness is a terrifying reality that afflicts people across the social spectrum. Indeed, cuts to local services tackling issues that affect people across society force many into making tragic choices regardless of their personal background; national reductions of services confronting domestic violence, for instance, leave many survivors without refuge, forcing them to choose between continued residence in an unsafe home or homelessness. Considering the complex nature of this context, it would be absurd to conclude that homelessness is a phenomenon contained to one or a few groups of people. Realising that we cannot reduce the reality of homelessness to a neat set of classifications, and that homeless people are more than merely the label “homeless” and first and foremost people, is essential.
Standing against the dehumanisation of homeless people is a vital part of addressing the deeper, structural challenges that the phenomenon incurs. Homelessness must be recognised within popular culture as a flagrant violation of human rights, including the right to life and the right to adequate housing. In the UK, the average mortality of homeless people stands 34 years short of the average national life expectancy, at just 47 years old. We must confront this figure and what it tells us about the ways in which homeless people are forced to live and to die. It is an intolerable tragedy that the fact that homeless people are human beings, and thus entitled to the opportunity to exercise a basic set of rights, must be spelt out. There is much work to be done to destigmatise homelessness and dismantle the culture of blame that surrounds it in order to fully realise the rights owed to people who face life without a home. A report undertaken by the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on the right to housing establishes that homelessness is a systematic form of social exclusion, discrimination, and loss of dignity. A global trend in states neglecting their obligations of social protection, and the failure of governments to regulate speculation in the housing market, encourages this exclusion and discrimination.
The commodification of housing in cities such as London, where 20,000 homes were vacant in 2016, has led to a disregard of the fact that housing is a human right. In her report, the Special Rapporteur confronted the reality that far from being a result of individual action, causes of homelessness include disproportionate levels of structural discrimination inflicted upon people depending on their social characteristics. For instance, women are often forced into homelessness due to wage gaps and unequal access. Importantly, the Rapporteur highlighted the need to interrogate the false construction of homeless people as a homogenous social category united under the label “homeless”. Such a categorisation proliferates a discriminatory image of people facing the plight of living without a home, and taints services seeking to eliminate homelessness as they pursue prejudiced attitudes towards homeless people.
The Special Rapporteur notes that laws often force homeless people into the category of criminal, instead of facilitating their access to housing and other basic amenities that every human being deserves. This finding is significant in light of the new Homelessness Reduction Act due to enter into force in April 2018, as it seeks to positively protect and enforce the rights of those facing homelessness.
The call of the Rapporteur for 2018 to be the year that governments across the globe begin addressing the unsustainable cycles of deprivation, exclusion, and discrimination of which homelessness is a part, and instead foster an inclusive, accessible, and stable society from which all can benefit, is urgent. It is no longer acceptable to accept homelessness as a fact and to simply dismiss homelessness as something that just happens in the society in which we live. Homelessness does not have to be inevitable; the greatest irony of social attitudes towards homelessness, in casting those facing life without a home as leading chaotic, messy lives, is that it is the current social climate itself, rife with uncertainty, speculation and hostility, which is messy. We must begin to unpick the chaotic structures that allow homelessness to occur, and instead strive to build a world in which life without a home is something of the past.
The way forward
Alongside projects such as Crisis’ 50th anniversary plan to end homelessness, Parliament’s introduction of the Homeless Reduction Act 2017, to enter into force in April this year, clearly emphasises that homelessness has become a phenomenon demanding urgent action. Crisis states that the new Act is even more important in reinforcing local authority duties owed to single homeless people than the 2015 precedent of Hotak v London Borough of Southwark. In this landmark case, the Supreme Court lowered the previously high “vulnerability” standard used at law to determine homeless priority cases. Simply put, vulnerability is a legal test used to decide which cases of homelessness a local authority should prioritise in its allocation of resources, such as shelter. A local authority has a legal duty to address the homelessness cases of vulnerable people. The ruling in Hotak is important because it made it easier for single homeless people over the age of 18 to satisfy the test of vulnerability and thus to exercise the right to see local authority duties fulfilled.
Building on this, the new Act, in its progressive protection of the preventative duty owed by local authorities to aid those facing homelessness, is a symbol of hope in a deeply challenging national climate. A key change that the new Act will bring about is a substantial extension of the period a person is deemed to be threatened by homelessness from 28 days to 56 days. This shift is a seminal one in terms of preventing homelessness, because it means that a local authority has a duty to help those likely to become homeless within the space of two months rather than one. Although it cannot be expected to remedy the entrenched structural issues that routinely undermine the work of local authorities in preventing homelessness, such as austerity cuts to welfare services, its existence emphasises that many within and working alongside government find the current crisis deplorable.
It is also encouraging that the long hoped-for pilot of the ‘Housing First’ policy, an initiative that focuses on rapidly securing ordinary accommodation for every person in society first, and then providing flexible support to address mental health needs, has begun to be implemented, albeit to a very limited degree. Crisis has recently received funding to run a test study implementing the model in Liverpool in order to produce a guide for other cities across the UK to follow. The ‘Housing First’ program has enjoyed success in New York and also notably Finland, the only European country to have decreased its levels of homelessness in recent years.
The government’s pledge to allocate £1 billion to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, and the forthcoming enforcement of marked legislative reform under the new Homelessness Reduction Act, highlights the critical nature of homelessness incidence in England. Such innovations should impress upon us that the presence of homelessness surfaces not as the exception but an everyday and pervading occurrence. So urgent is the problem that a report published by Shelter in the final quarter of 2017 found that in Newham, London, the number of homeless people stood at 1 in every 25 people.
The issue cannot be simply dismissed as particular to one or a few boroughs or regions either; nationwide, there has been a 134% rise in rough sleeping incidence from the years 2010 to 2016. The organisation Homeless Link found that in numerous areas, such as King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, the increase of people sleeping rough totalled an excess of 700% in the space of one year alone (2015-2016). Faced with such grave figures and predictions, it is clear that a greater level of action is needed across the private and public sector in order to challenge the full scale of the phenomenon. It is time to tackle the myriad issues that help generate this tragic and unnecessary social evil. Homelessness affects and afflicts people across the social spectrum, and it is in the interests of each one of us to refuse to accept homelessness as a normal or inevitable occurrence.