The Observer view on the shameful rise in rough sleepers | Observer editorial

Rising homelessness isn’t inevitable, it’s a political choice

After weeks of unseasonably mild weather, wintry conditions have settled in across much of the UK. For many, this is simply an inconvenience; for others, heating bills will heap even more pressure on already stretched budgets. But for people sleeping rough on Britain’s streets, the onset of winter is deadly.

The number of people sleeping rough in England has increased by 169% since 2010, according to official figures. We don’t need the statistics to tell us this, though: the evidence is there before our eyes, in the numbers of tents and mattresses lining the streets of Britain’s towns and cities. And there are hundreds of thousands more people homeless out of sight: families living in hostels or B&Bs, or stealing a few nights here and there with any friends willing to put them up. New analysis from the housing charity Shelter last week found there are at least 320,000 people homeless in Britain today.

Soaring levels of homelessness reveal something fundamentally wrong in Britain: that so many adults and children are losing a stable roof over their head – with many more at risk of doing so – is a warning sign of the eroding social safety net. The experience of being homeless has profound effects on someone’s ability to hold down a job, on their physical and mental health, and on their children’s schooling. The average age of a rough sleeper at death is 43, or just over half UK life expectancy.

Far from being inevitable, homelessness is totally avoidable. The numbers of homeless people fell during the 2000s as a result of a comprehensive strategy to tackle homelessness. The increases of the past decade are a direct result of failures in government policy.

The deep welfare cuts we have seen since 2010 have tipped people over the edge into homelessness. The local housing allowance freeze, benefits freezes and the benefit cap have all taken private rents further out of reach of low-income families. In areas in which universal credit is being rolled out, delays of weeks in the first payment mean that growing numbers of families are in rent arrears.

This has been compounded by the long-term decline in the amount of social housing available. The stock of homes available for social rent has fallen from 7m in the 1980s, to under 5m today, with far fewer social lettings to new tenants than there were in the 1990s. And in the private rental sector, rising rents have outpaced wage growth: low-income households have seen their housing costs rise by 45% in just six years. Supported housing and rehabilitation services for people with complex needs, including mental health issues and alcohol and drug addiction, have also been hit by spending cuts.

The government’s response has been infused with positive rhetoric but utterly inadequate resources. Ministers have pledged to end rough sleeping by 2027, and have introduced legal duties for councils to prevent and relieve homelessness. But councils have seen their central government grants cut by 49% since 2010. The £100m of new funding to tackle the problem is welcome, but a fraction of what would be needed to build the new homes required to house those sleeping on the streets or in hostels.

Ministers would argue that the money to comprehensively tackle homelessness isn’t there in the Treasury coffers. This is rank dishonesty: Tory chancellors will have delivered £22bn of income tax cuts – the benefits of which flow to the most affluent half of families – by 2020. Allowing homelessness to rise isn’t some inevitable consequence of fiscal responsibility. It’s a political choice.

As Brexit continues to consume all of Westminster’s political oxygen, while poverty and hardship deepen, it’s impossible to shake the sense that things will get worse yet. Brexit will be a self-imposed economic hit that will in all likelihood further erode the social safety net. And so people sleeping on the streets of Britain – one of the world’s richest countries – could be the shameful reality we have to live with for years to come.


Observer editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Observer view on the budget and the decade of austerity | Observer editorial
Rising levels of homelessness are our most visible sign of austerity. But a figure pulled out of the chancellor’s red box tomorrow won’t change this

Observer editorial

28, Oct, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
We had dealt with homelessness. Why has it now returned? | Lynsey Hanley
The failure by the Tories to tackle the severe housing shortage is part of an ideology to target the vulnerable

Lynsey Hanley

16, Sep, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
When schools close early, we are surely back in an age of decline | David Olusoga
Millions of lives are being slowly suffocated by remorseless Tory cuts that have deliberately undermined the pillars of a once-civilised society

David Olusoga

10, Mar, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
Everyone deserves a decent home | Letters
Better planning and more investment would alleviate the plight of those in temporary homes or on the streets

20, Oct, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Observer view on Philip Hammond’s budget
The chancellor must finally banish the ghost of George Osborne and help the poor

19, Nov, 2017 @12:03 AM

Article image
The Observer view on Rishi Sunak’s spring statement | Observer editorial
The chancellor had the opportunity to address Britain’s spiralling poverty but callously chose not to take it

Observer editorial

27, Mar, 2022 @6:30 AM

Article image
Hundreds of rough sleepers in Manchester to be offered homes
Social impact bond backs Andy Burnham’s pledge to eradicate local homelessness with cash for 270 homes and support plan

Helen PiddNorth of England editor

21, Nov, 2017 @6:17 PM

Article image
Halt universal credit or rough sleepers will double, says Burnham
Greater Manchester mayor says officials from across public sector including NHS believe rollout should be stopped

Josh Halliday North of England correspondent

06, Oct, 2017 @2:14 PM

Article image
Outing of Torbay’s ‘fake’ homeless is a new low for DIY vigilantes | Lucy Siegle
Ashley Sims puts up photos of rough sleepers as the town scrambles to protect its most vulnerable from freezing

Lucy Siegle

04, Mar, 2018 @12:01 AM

Article image
No Mark Field, it is not the homeless who are undesirable | Kenan Malik
The suspended Foreign Office minister complains about rough sleepers, but his government has caused their numbers to rise

Kenan Malik

07, Jul, 2019 @8:00 AM