HAVING a home is a basic human need. It should also be a human right. For those without a home life is barely tolerable. For a rich society like ours the problem of homelessness is an indictment of its ability to meet one of its citizens’ key welfare needs.
Yet homelessness remains a big issue both in the North and elsewhere in the UK, with people still sleeping rough on the streets of our cities and towns simply because they don’t have a home to go to.
The number of rough sleepers has soared by 169% since 2010 according to the charity Crisis. Yet we don’t need raw numbers to tell us this. Homeless people huddling in shop doorways and makeshift tents and mattresses remain a feature of many urban streets.
Although the number of rough sleepers in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne is much lower than Manchester and other core cities, the problem is there with up to 20 individuals sleeping out in the city centre on any given night.
Many thousands more make up the “hidden homeless”. Some “sofa-surf’ in friends’ flats. Others sleep in cars or stay in charity run hostels, grotty B and B’s and other costly forms of temporary accommodation. According to the housing charity Shelter a staggering 320,000 people are homeless in modern Britain.
The nature, causation and effects of homelessness are complex and multi-facetted. Being homeless can have a devastating impact both on a person’s ability to hold down a job and on their children’s life-chances.
Few youngsters trapped in overcrowded and insecure accommodation thrive at school or college.
Very few young homeless people access further education at 16 or 18. Those that do tend to be residents of Foyers, based in some big cities, which provide integrated training and social care packages for their clients.
Homelessness has a profound effect on physical and mental health. The average age of a rough sleeper at death is 43!
Too often homelessness results from a life-crisis. It’s the outcome of traumatic life changes such as unexpected redundancy, long-term illness, relationship breakdown and problems navigating a complex and punitive benefits system.
According to the campaign group Generation Rent a chief cause of youth homelessness is the abrupt ending of a short-term tenancy in the private sector. 94% of this is down to ‘no-fault’ evictions which has more than doubled since 2008.
For the York University social researcher Mike Stein, the recent increase in homelessness and rooflessness in the last decade is a direct result of national government housing policy.
As Prof Stein points out the problem is not inevitable. Previous administrations, including both Conservative and Labour, were able to get to grips with street homelessness and “cardboard city” both in London and elsewhere in the nineties and noughties.
Austerity alongside substantial welfare cuts have pushed thousands of people into homelessness. Housing benefit is no longer available to most under-35 year-olds. The benefit cap and freezes have all taken private rents further out of reach of low-income households.
In the North East, where universal credit has been rolled out, an average six-week delay till the first payment, has resulted in hundreds of families being caught in rent arrears. Some have lost their homes because of this.
These changes have been compounded by the long-term decline in the amount of social housing available. The number of affordable council homes has fallen from 7m in 1980 to under 5m today partly due to the right to buy. Few of these homes have been replaced.
In the growing private rented sector rents have soared outstripping annual wages. Low income households have seen their housing costs jump by 45% in the last six years. For many young people rents eat up almost half of their yearly income.
Supported housing (most of it high quality) for people with complex health and social care needs has been hit hard by public expenditure cuts. The Government acknowledges that we have a major problem with £100m of new funding to sort it.
200,000 new homes, mostly to purchase, have been promised. They have pledged to end rough sleeping by 2027 and have passed a law giving councils a duty to prevent and alleviate homelessness.
Yet most councils in the North of England have seen their central government grant slashed by 49% since 2010.
Despite the best efforts of local authorities and social housing providers to build new homes more needs to be done. It can’t be left to the market place nor the third sector.
Housing for the many and not just for the few must be at the heart of a radical national government housing programme.
There’s a pressing need to tackle homelessness, especially youth homelessness by providing more support for front line services, outreach work on the streets and Foyers.
Housing associations need to sign up to “homelessness agreements’ and concerted action is required to tackle the root causes namely the mental health crisis and the maladministration of the social security system.
A tighter regulation of the private rented sector is needed based on a cap on rent rises whilst giving greater security for renters. And there’s even scope to promote housing co-ops too.
But above all we need a 10-year comprehensive strategy and operational plan to build 1m affordable social homes (council and housing association) in places where people live and for those who need it most.
This will require a deep- seated change. With will and commitment it can be done. A decent home for all is the hallmark of a civilised society.
Having a secure home could also help to boost participation in FE or apprenticeships.
It should also be a basic citizenship entitlement like access to free universal education and health care.
Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor and writes on social issues. He writes in a personal capacity.
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