Homelessness is on the rise in the UK. By end of 2016, the official underestimate was 4,134 people sleeping rough on the streets of the UK.
The figure has doubled since 2010 and is a 16% increase on 2015. The housing campaign Shelter estimates 300,000 people sleeping rough or in temporary or overcrowded accommodation, a 13,000 increase on 2016.
Further tens of thousands are sofa surfing or staying with friends in tense conditions.
By the end of 2017, 79,190 households were in temporary accommodation, a 17% increase on 2015, and a 59% increase on 2010.
Since 2010 the number of government-funded homes built for social rent, already low, has plummeted by 97%. In 2010 36,700 new socially rented houses were built; in 2017, only 1102 social houses.
During the same period the number of “affordable” houses built by local authorites and housing associations halved from 55,909 to 27,792, out of 200,000 built overall.
Experts estimate that the number of new homes needed to keep up with demand is 250,000 a year, yet the total is way below that, the majority of that total expensive and unavailable to the majority of the population.
From 2012 to 2016 the number of social or council homes available to rent dropped by 120,000.
The government claim it has prioritised “affordable” homes over social homes. Social homes may be rented at 50% of market rate, and “affordable” at 80%, which in many areas makes them not affordable at all to people in work, let alone people on benefits.
The government has reduced the amounts paid in housing benefit to levels often well below rents actually charged, so that many benefit recipients end up paying a large chunk of their rent out of meagre incomes. Under-25s have been barred from claiming more than a shared-room rate for private rented properties. Cuts to JSA, ESA and PIP have left many vulnerable people on vastly reduced incomes whilst inflation has risen.
Universal credit has made things worse. The Government has made it more difficult for people to get their benefit paid direct to landlords. People now get payments only monthly, and those not until after a delay of six weeks. This causes budgeting problems for cash-strapped tenants. Many private landlords are now refusing to take universal credit claimants.
Universal credit also caps the child tax credits payable and will pay benefits only for the first two children. An overall benefit cap limits the amount of money claimable.
Now the Government is trumpeting the “Homeless Reduction Act”. This pushes local councils to prevent homelessness by working with people earlier in the process in order to try and keep people in properties, and increases support and assistance for single men and women who were excluded from temporary accommodation in the past.
However, it does not come with extra funding. Councils are expected to provide more services with no extra money after having over 50% of their budgets cut over the last seven years.
Front-line housing workers face higher numbers of cases, more work, less resources. Workloads are now unmanageable across the housing sector and this is leading very high levels of workplace stress and sickness within adult social care and housing. Service users are processed as quickly as possible and placed into low quality and expensive temporary accommodation.
Temporary housing is now often provided by charities or private companies, with less security and standards of accommodation dropping.
Many support services have closed down or scaled back the services that they offer. That includes statutory services like mental health support.
That increases the pressure on other services, and leads to service users with more complex needs coming into general homeless services. It is often very difficult to support them with finding permanent accommodation — they have barriers to social housing and would struggle to maintain private rented properties. In the past they would have been placed at specialist accommodation with support workers. Not now. They end up with long stays in temporary accommodation or becoming revolving door clients as they do not get the support they need to maintain a tenancy.
Labour policy at the 2017 general election was an improvement on the past. It included a commitment to build at least 100,000 council or local authority homes per year by the end of 2022 and to make those homes will be “genuinely affordable”.
Labour is also committed to bringing on controls on rent rises, more secure tenancies, and more rights for renters in the private sector. It has promised to safeguard hostels and accommodation at threat of closure due to austerity.
Jeremy Corbyn recently announced that 8,000 homes would be bought for homeless people with a history of rough sleeping.
Such policies to be expanded to ensure that everyone has access to decent, affordable and secure accommodation. With the current scale of housing shortages and homelessness, Labour’s plan need to go further, hand in hand with reversing cuts to the benefits system, restoring funds to local government, and to allow local councils to build the social houses needed.
At least 100,000 council houses should be built each year from the day that Labour enters government — something more like 250,000 new houses per year are needed to keep up with demand. The housing stocks of housing associations should be transferred back to local authority control so houses can be allocated according to need.
Rent caps, and protections for tenants, should be introduced in the private sector, and local authorities need to have greater powers to deal with slum landlords and empty properties.
Around the UK there are already many great local campaigns around housing and homelessness. In Leeds, for example, “Hands off our Homes” does good campaigning work in local communities and within the Labour Party.
We must build up such campaigns, and take them into the labour movement.
Oxford Labour failing homeless
In Oxford there is a clear humanitarian crisis on the streets. Since 2010, the number of known rough sleepers has more than tripled.
The council estimates the figure to be at least 60, although they admit that this is likely to be a very significant underestimate. Over the last winter, with temperatures dropping as low as 9 degrees below zero, several of Oxford’s homeless have died on the streets.
Two things are becoming ever more clear. Firstly, that this is an entirely politically manufactured situation, and secondly that it is becoming worse.
Tory-imposed central government cuts have been the direct cause of the growing homelessness crisis across the country, and the Conservative-run Oxfordshire County Council has cut its homelessness budget down to nil. The Labour-dominated City Council has retained its homelessness budget despite overall cuts, yet it has shown a clear disposition to side with businesses and the university over marginalised people.
Even minor demands like the expansion of the “Severe Weather Emergency Protocol” (which dictates how often the city council has to open up shelters on freezing nights) have been rebuffed, despite campaigners only calling for what Sadiq Khan has already done in London.
The council continues to use antisocial behaviour legislation to threaten fines against rough sleepers, and recently nearly everyone we’ve spoken to on the streets have reported greater harassment from authorities preventing many rough sleepers from sitting down during the day. Bedding and possessions continue to be cleared away from doorways, and no lockers are provided for free storage of possessions.
With recent attempts to set up impromptu homeless shelters in the city centre being shut down, and little sign of an improvement in the city council’s position, there is reason to be pessimistic. Yet residents and Labour members are clearly horrified by the current situation. This demonstrates the need for greater democracy within Labour and in local communities.
The hope for real change lies in public agitation, not private charity.
Manchester rough sleeping up 15%
According to government figures, generally agreed to be an underestimate, rough sleeping last year was up by 15% on 2016.
Apart from central London, three of the worst affected boroughs — Salford, Tameside and Manchester — were in Greater Manchester, which showed an overall 42% rise.
The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, who pledged to end rough sleeping by 2020 when elected, called it a “humanitarian crisis”. But by his own account, his actions so far have focussed on raising money for the Mayor’s Fund and via a bond issue from the private sector in order to support various projects to provide immediate aid. Little is being done to find a long term solution to the housing crisis.
In fact, policies of Manchester City Council cut against such a solution in either the short or long term.
The council has been trying for years to drive homeless people out of the city centre — I recently saw council workers binning the possessions of homeless people, including sleeping bags, that had been left in a doorway at the side of the Town Hall. At one point, it was claimed that all rough sleepers in Manchester had been offered alternative accommodation and those on the street had refused it. In the longer term, they have given permission for large developments that provide little, if any, “affordable” housing.
Blaming the government (rightly) for the housing crisis and financial cuts should not be seen as a cop-out from supporting homeless people.
Students join fight against social cleansing in Southwark
Student activists from University of the Arts London and other colleges, including Workers’ Liberty members, have been occupying a part of the London College of Communications to protest UAL management’s campaign, hand-in-hand with property developers Delancey to demolish a popular shopping centre in a working-class community in order to build a luxury development. They have been joined by local trade unionists.
Acorn Sheffield organises for Selective Licensing
The Sheffield branch of renters’ union and anti-poverty organisation Acorn are doorknocking residents of Sharrow and Meersbrook to mobilise them in favour of landlord regulation for their area.
Selective licensing would impose minimum safety standards on properties before they can be let, charging an annual fee. Exploitative proprietors will be struck off the register if they refuse to comply.
The council’s inspection teams have gathered evidence in the neighbourhood to suggest three in four privately rented properties contain Category 1 hazards — representing serious risk to human life.
With the consultation deadline closing 23 February, activists are speaking with as many residents as possible, leafleting and holding community meetings to ensure the strong negative response coming from landlords does not drown out voices from the community.
Whilst Acorn by no means views landlord licensing as a silver bullet in the struggle for safe and fair housing conditions, its implementation would have a strongly positive impact on the lives of tenants who have until now been routinely ignored.
The organising effort also represents an opportunity to grow the grassroots movement of renters across the city.
• To get involved, you can join here or find them on social media.