Rise in rough sleeping is no surprise – it’s now a routine sight | Amelia Gentleman

The number of rough sleepers in one London borough has leapt by 647%. What’s gone wrong?

Walking back from the park early on Monday morning I counted three people sleeping in a hedge along the railway tracks that lead from Euston station, and quickly forgot about it. Five years ago the sight would have been very unusual. Now, every morning on the way to work I walk past several people asleep beneath railway bridges, zipped up in tents along the canal, packed inside cardboard boxes in shop doorways or hidden beneath damp, muddy duvets on park benches. It is so routine that I forget to be shocked.

Rough sleeping in the north London borough of Camden has increased by 647%, according to government figures released on Thursday. The huge rise is accounted for in part by an official underestimate of the problem last year, but no one who lives here will be surprised to see it confirmed that there has been a sharp jump in the numbers of people sleeping on the streets.

Camden reported the largest increase in rough sleeping of any area in England, from 17 rough sleepers in 2016 (an optimistic estimate) to 127 counted this year.

Ten years ago there were almost no rough sleepers in Camden. So what’s gone wrong? The Labour-run council says it’s clear that cuts are to blame. Councillor Nadia Shah said: “Rough sleeping in Camden is now at unprecedented levels. This is an appalling situation made worse by the politics of austerity that have led to cuts in services across the country.”

Nationally, welfare reform and cuts to benefits have increased financial insecurity, while soaring rents and reductions in the permitted housing benefit payments have left many people with an impossible gap between rent owing and income. On top of this, changes to the way housing benefit is paid have increasingly meant money no longer goes straight to the landlord but to the tenant, which has led to a sharp rise in arrears and evictions.

Huge pressure on mental health services means vulnerable people are not getting the support they need. Drug and alcohol addiction services are struggling financially. Reductions to local authority budgets mean Camden’s funding from central government will have fallen by half between 2010 and 2020. In 2019-20 the council is forecast to receive £106m, down from the £241m received in 2010-11.

The picture in Camden is complicated by the arrival of a large number of eastern European migrants who are usually working but are unable to afford London rents and are not eligible for any housing benefit support. Camden said around 50 of the 127 people counted sleeping rough during the November survey were from Romania, many of them shunted into Camden by aggressive Home Office and police inspection policies in other boroughs around London.

Although Camden has 651 hostel spaces, most of which are full every night, it cannot house people in these beds who are not originally from the borough. More than 75% of its homeless population comes from elsewhere in the UK or abroad.

Fifteen of the rough sleepers in Camden were aged between 18 and 25, the highest number of young rough sleepers of any borough in London. Sheelagh O’Connor, director of the New Horizon Youth Centre, a day centre in the borough that works to find emergency accommodation for vulnerable young people, said: “It is a symptom of spiralling rents and the difficulty of getting together a deposit and a month’s rent in advance. Young people are pushed out of their homes because of overcrowding, poverty and benefit changes that are causing a squeeze on the family purse. I was tripping over people rough sleeping near Euston this weekend.”

Over the past five years, the proportion of people seeking housing help who have mental health problems had more than doubled. More than 50% now have some kind of mental health problem, and at the same time available hostel spaces have been cut. “We’re finding it more and more difficult to access accommodation for them. Just being homeless and having mental health issues is not enough to hit the threshold to become someone in priority need. You need to be almost sectionable to hit that threshold,” O’Connor said.

During the day, the rough sleepers by the railway tracks heading north disappear, possibly to work. At lunchtime, only their tents or plastic sheeting shelters and sleeping bags are visible, discreetly concealed behind holly bushes, but it is clear they have been settled here for a while. There are socks draped on the branches to dry, suitcases hidden behind an electricity box, a large umbrella protecting the entrance to one tent, a new book on cooking fish wedged between the hedge branches.

Contributor

Amelia Gentleman

The GuardianTramp

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