Every year thousands of people apply to their local authority for homelessness assistance. Between October and December of 2015 alone, 29,250 applications for housing assistance were submitted to local authorities. Of these, 49% were accepted. In 2014/15, 112,330 people and families in England applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance, a 26% rise since 2009/10. Homelessness is on the rise. Although local authorities have an obligation to discuss a plan of action with homelessness people seeking accommodation it may come as a shock that local authorities do not have to provide housing for all homeless people.
To be legally defined as homeless you must either lack a secure place in which you are entitled to live or not reasonably expected to live in your current accommodation. Local authorities are duty bound to make inquiries into a person’s circumstances if they have reason to believe that the person may be homeless or threatened with homelessness. However, in order for your local authority to have a duty to find you housing you must have a ‘priority need’. There are strict criteria’s in which you have to meet in order to be provided with temporary housing and given a ‘reasonable preference’ for permanent accommodation. Of the 112,330 people and families that applied for homelessness assistance, 54,000 were accepted as homeless and in ‘priority need’, the rest were shown the door and left to fend for themselves.
Rough Sleepers in the UK being criminalised
Worthing Council are proposing a ‘Public Space Protection Order’ which sets out to give the police and council officers the power to ban “anti social” activities such as sleeping rough which is definded as overnight camping or begging. Those who breach an order could be punished with a $50 on the spot penalty notice or a fine of up to $1000 for non-payment. According to change.org, a website which calls on the public to create change by signing online petitions, this public order will essentially criminalise homelessness. You can sign this petition to stop Worthing Council from following through with the PSPO here.
When people think of homelessness the majority of them tend to think of someone sleeping rough on the street in a shop doorway or under an overpass. Sleeping rough is a dangerous and distressing experience – nighttime temperatures in the UK can plummet to below freezing during the winter months whilst rainfall is an occurrence all year round. According to statistics revealed by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network [CHAIN], in 2014/15, 7581 people slept rough at some point in London alone, the statistic for the whole of the UK will be far higher. Of this number 5,107 were new rough sleepers, 1,595 were seen sleeping rough for two or more years and 879 had returned to rough sleeping after a gap of a year or more. Many people who sleep rough are afflicted by multiple health conditions such as mental health problems and drug abuse. They are also highly vulnerable to physical violence. According to government statistics in 2015, it has been estimated that 3,569 homeless people sleep rough on any one night across England alone – this is double the number it was in 2010. Homelessness is undeniably on the rise.
Homelessness charity Crisis.org.uk [Crisis] state that it is difficult to retrieve an actual figure for the number of rough sleepers in the UK, the number is likely to be far higher. One reason for this is that rough sleepers are hard for support teams to locate. Another reason is that some people will only sleep rough for a matter of days or weeks and may never be picked up on record. One way in which rough sleepers protect themselves is to hide themselves away in places that they will not be seen, this is especially true for homeless women.
According to homelessness agencies, 12% of rough sleepers are women, but this statistic is misleading. Homeless women are highly vulnerable to the risk of verbal abuse, physical violence and sexual assault. Women will respond to these dangers by hiding themselves away in an attempt to ‘remain invisible’. They will locate secluded locations and attempt to disguise their homeless status in some way. Unfortunately, this has knock on effects. It is much more difficult for charities and social workers to access women and offer them the help and support that they need. Alarmingly, during interviews with homeless women, homelessness charities have revealed that a number of women engage in unwanted sexual liaisons in order to secure accommodation whilst others return to abusive partners in order to escape another night sleeping rough.
Crisis research found that the majority of women recalled negative experiences when asking their local authorities for help. Many were ‘turned away at the door’ or deterred from making a homelessness application. Of the women that did successfully manage to make a homelessness application, less than 33% were awarded priority need status. It is unsurprising to notice that many women are reluctant to seek support and according to Crisis’ research, over a third of women did not even bother approaching their local authority.
The inadequacies of local authorities are not only felt by women. Despite being ‘priority need’, former armed forces personnel make up 9% of England’s rough sleepers. Likewise, other so called ‘priority need’ members of the public, who are supposed to be given at the minimum some form of temporary accommodation are also sleeping rough – 32% of rough sleepers were in prison at some point and 10% were in care – former convicts and former care home patients are both ‘priority need’ yet they are still on the street. Homelessness in the UK is a crisis which needs addressing. Given the aforementioned statistics regarding homelessness in the capital – Boris Johnson has failed in his role as mayor of London.
Government Policies and Homelessness
The past six years have seen the ruling Conservative government introduce crippling austerity measures – making vast and dramatic cuts to the public sector. Cuts to housing benefits, child benefits and disability benefits has meant the average family is worse off financially than it was before the cuts, unsurprisingly. However, these public sector cuts have lead directly to an increase in homelessness. Statistics have shown us that homelessness and rough sleeping is rising. Whilst the cost of living is going up, the amount of money people and families can receive in benefits is dropping. Whilst the easy answer to this would be to tell these people to ‘go out and get a job’ people and families rely on benefits to support themselves and their families. I need not remind you of how people with crippling disabilities are having their benefits taken away from them and told that they are ‘fit to work’. Not only are people who lose their benefits being forced to seek homelessness assistance, many are dying due to government policies.
Zero-Hour Contracts and pay-day loans
The current governments reliance on zero-hour contracts as a tool to boost employment statistics has seen a drastic effect on the working population. Workers are left in the unknown as to where their next days work is coming from. According to Owen Smith, Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, zero hour contracts “make it virtually impossible to plan finances and family life” adding that “Before the election they [the Conservative government] promised to act on zero-hours contracts, but that was nothing more than words”. Last month it was estimated that 801,000 Britain’s are employed on zero-hour contracts, companies such as Sports Direct and Weatherspoons have at least 90% of their employees on zero-hour contracts. These employees have no guarantees of work each week – it is not difficult to see how zero-hour contracts and homelessness are linked together.
The emergence of pay day loan companies have been suggested as another reason for the rise in UK homelessness levels. A rising number of people and families are having to borrow money from pay-day loan companies simply to pay their water and electricity bills. Interest rates charged by these companies can go up to extortionate heights. Many a person has taken out a loan through a pay day loan company out of necessity without realising the level of interest they have to pay back if they miss a loan. These companies prey on people who cannot afford their repayments. Link together taking out a pay-day loan with being on a zero-hours contract and consequences can unquestionably become dire. The government is doing next to nothing to protect people from poverty and the threat of homelessness. Conservative ministers sold advice to the payday company Wonga, whilst one top Conservative party donor and close friend of David Cameron owns a loan company which charges the public, on average, 74.8% APR. It would be naive to suggest that the rise in zero hour contracts and pay-day loan companies doesn’t contribute in part to the rise in homelessness.
The UK is a country where there are 700,000 unoccupied homes. Homelessness has become a consequence of the lack of both public and government morality. Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter, the UK’s biggest homelessness charity, said “homes shouldn’t stand empty” and the government needed to come up with “bigger, bolder ideas” to tackle the lack of available, affordable homes. Only when the UK government, Labour or Conservative, see homelessness as seriously as it should be seen, will we begin to witness a decline in the number of homeless people and families in the UK.