Searching for Solutions to Rough Sleeping

In amongst the figures for homelessness – which we know includes those who are housed in temporary accommodation, it is easy to simply hope that between the local authorities and charity led shelters, people have some sort of roof over their head, especially in this, the coldest part of the year.  But rough sleeping remains a serious issue in the UK.

In 2017, figures published by Crisis found that in London alone, 2,600 of the individuals they were in contact with had slept on the street in one three month window. Whilst this is a small fraction of those who are categorised as “homeless”, these people have quite literally nowhere to go, not even a temporary home or bed for the night, and face freezing temperatures and a frightening experience as night falls, in a trend replicated across the country.  Homeless Link found that over 4,000 sleep on any one night across England – take a moment to think about these people contemplating that fate for the coming night.

But how do people end up in this situation?  And how can we help bring this to an end?

In the long term, effective education and job creation, leading to greater personal wealth, is an easy to grasp solution, and the current government continues to make great strides in this.  But this a long term – albeit essential – ambition, which cannot help people sleeping in the cold, rain and wind tonight.  It is absolutely vital that children and young people who are at risk of becoming NEET – the common acronym for being Not in Education, Employment or Training – are identified and supported at an early stage. Shining examples of educational pogrammes across the country show how, given the right motivation and a move away from a “one size fits all” approach, these young people can become successful and see new opportunities before them.

We must also ensure that young people who are suffering abuse at home receive the help they need – without having to ask.  Research by Aviva in 2011, when 100,000 under 16s a year were running away from home, found that only 14% of young people would turn to a teacher if they suffered abuse at home, and only 3% would contact police.  Therefore, the need for all adults working with children to be on the lookout for signs of abuse is key.  Leaving children with no other means of escape from physical or mental abuse is simply unacceptable – what an option, abuse at home or a gamble to a dangerous life on the streets.

Drug abuse can be another key factor in people ending up on the streets.  Crisis research found that two thirds of homeless people reported that drug and alcohol use was a factor in their initial homelessness.  Westminster City Council further reported that their staff were reporting rising numbers of incidents of abuse from homeless people using drugs or alcohol, and that, of course, such addiction was preventing individuals engaging with support services. Such substance misuse can therefore trap users in a vicious cycle, and key to policies to reduce homelessness must be tackling the route causes of such addiction, and providing the support that people need to break away from their use.

There are, then, a wealth of other issues that lead to people ending up on the streets – from marital break-ups, poverty, losing work and mental health are all major factors.  People from all possible backgrounds can find themselves with nowhere to turn and no roof over their head, out of ideas.

Not only does rough sleeping have an unimaginable and traumatising effect on the individual, the economic consequence is also huge.  Through benefits payments, A&E visits, brushes with the criminal justice system and local authority response, every individual homeless person costs the state £26,000 per annum on average – with the overall costs of homelessness (including all categories, not just rough sleeping) costing the taxpayer £1bn every year.

On both a human and compassionate level, and an economic footing, it is therefore essential that this is tackled strategically with a co-ordinated approach.  Bringing together police, health services and local authorities, along with charities and third sector organisations solutions can be found.  In Finland, homelessness is dealt with on an immediate basis, with people moved into permanent accommodation with a rental contract, and homelessness shelters converted into suitable long term homes.  And Finland is the only European country where homelessness is on the decline.

Innovation is the answer to many of society’s problems, and in this case, we must look to join up services, and repurpose funds to find opportunities to completely change how we approach issues, rather than use the sticking plasters that we always have.  After all, as the phrase goes, “this is how we’ve always done it” are the most dangerous words in the English language…

Elizabeth Anderson is Head of Campaigns for Parliament Street

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