Something to make you change your mind

THERE is a new sight in London’s posh Sloane Square, and not one that the well-heeled commuters scurrying to work care to linger over: a huddle of dirty tents, just outside a luxury menswear store. These are rough sleepers.

One of them, Tom, wearily pops his head out on a sodden morning. Originally from Folkestone, he split up with the mother of his children and came to London some months ago. Probably no more than 30 years old, he is in a bad way; an empty bottle of pills lies discarded by his filthy sleeping-bag. He has no idea how to get any official help, or where the nearest hostel is.

Tom’s experience has become much more common. The number of rough sleepers in England rose from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,751 in 2017. These official figures are based on a single-night snapshot estimated by local authorities each November. Researchers at Heriot-Watt University put the total in Britain at about 9,000, and expect that number to rise by three-quarters over the next decade unless action is taken. More than 200,000 households in England are recorded as homeless, lacking adequate permanent housing, according to official figures.

The sheer visibility of so many rough sleepers, often in hotspots such as Bedford, Brighton and Cornwall, together with a recent spell of Arctic weather, has pushed their plight up the political agenda. Action is, indeed, promised. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, has called the situation “disgraceful”. If elected he proposes to give local authorities the power to seize properties that are kept vacant, to house people. Theresa May’s government has promised to reduce rough sleeping by half by 2022, and end it by 2027.

On April 3rd the Homelessness Reduction Act will come into effect, and may help ministers meet those targets. The housing minister, for one, must be expecting it to work. On March 4th Heather Wheeler promised that she would resign if the number of rough sleepers continued to rise on her watch.

There is widespread agreement on the main cause of the climb in rough sleeping. The most common reason used to be a change in personal circumstance, such as Tom experienced. Now, the prime cause is being turfed out of private rented accommodation. In London, the proportion of those citing this as their main reason for being homeless has risen from 11% in 2010 to 40%. In England as a whole the figure has risen from 14% to 32%.

As a consequence of austerity, housing benefits have been cut. At the same time rents have been soaring, especially in the affluent south. Thus many tenants have had to give up their flats. Under current provisions, “priority” cases, such as mothers with dependent children, have to be found somewhere to stay by local authorities. But non-priority people, mostly single older men, have to fend for themselves. Meanwhile the number of hostel beds available to the homeless has dropped since 2010, from 43,655 to 35,727.

Those involved in helping rough sleepers point to other factors. Matt Downie of Crisis, a charity, argues that the gig economy doesn’t help. People with irregular incomes and zero-hours contracts cannot budget properly for paying rent, nor save much for in case things go wrong. A growing number of rough sleepers simultaneously hold down jobs. Tom O’Connor, the head of Providence Row, which helps rough sleepers in east London, says that the proportion of women among them is also rising.

The new legislation may well help. It will oblige local authorities to offer advice and help to all homeless people, regardless of their level of priority or whether they have any local connection. Furthermore, the period during which a person threatened with homelessness can apply for help will be extended, from 28 days to 56. The best way to end rough sleeping is to prevent anyone starting in the first place, since the longer a person sleeps rough, the less likely they are to stop.

The question is whether there will be enough money to back up the law’s sensible proposals. Sarah Makhlouf of Providence Row points out that they will require many more case workers. The government has promised councils £73m ($100m) to fund the legislation. Given the scale of the problem, many fear that will not be enough. Tom, and thousands like him, must be hoping that it is.