The UK is currently facing an extensive homelessness issue. Findings from a study conducted by homeless charity Shelter revealed that there are 307,000 people sleeping rough in the UK – more than the population of Newcastle. The information was collected from official government data, and shows that one in 200 people are homeless or living in inadequate housing. Shelter also said these findings are an underestimation, as they didn’t factor in the people who are trapped in a cycle of ‘hidden homelessness’ by sofa surfing with friends and family.
According to Homeless charity St Mungo’s, many people experience homelessness as a result of experiencing a traumatic childhood. Sometimes it’s sexual or physical abuse, other times it’s an unstable environment, such as moving between foster homes. For some people, these experiences put them at risk from an early age.
Research they carried out in 2013 shows that 43 percent of people who slept rough for the first time had problems with alcohol or drug use. For some people it was a contributing factor to them becoming homeless; for others, it was a symptom of trying to cope with other problems that they faced. Poor mental health is also widespread among people who are homeless or sleeping rough, with over 60 percent of people on the streets suffering with a mental health issue. Many, however, may never have had access to adequate treatment or support.
Homelessness in the UK has risen every year for seven consecutive years, and at the heart of the problem, lies government austerity measures. Sharp cuts to funding for homeless services mean the number of beds in homeless shelters has plummeted, despite the fact that homelessness in this country has soared by 169 percent since 2010. The government’s Supporting People programme, which is a major source of funding for homeless shelters, has been cut by 59 percent since austerity measures began in 2010, charity Homeless Link said. At the same time, local councils have seen their budgets slashed by an average of 40 percent.
Due to this, the number of homeless people dying on the streets or in temporary accommodation in the UK has more than doubled in the last five years. With people being found dead in supermarket car parks, church graveyards and crowded hostels, the number of deaths has risen year on year. 70 people are estimated to have died on the street in 2017, which equates to more than one person every week.
Experts have put the rise down to rapidly increasing rent prices, welfare cuts and lack of social housing, and have called for the government to take urgent action to address the root causes of poverty. The figures, compiled by The Guardian, are thought to be a significant underestimation. This is because no part of the UK government records homeless death statistics at a national level, and local authorities are not required to count rough sleeper deaths.
The government have failed dismally to build nearly enough homes that people on middle and low incomes can genuinely afford. Research carried out by YouGov the (government’s own research body) has revealed the true extent of the UK’s housing crisis:
- Almost 4 million working families (3.787 million) in the UK could be just one paycheque away from losing their home.
- Private rented households are paying an average of 40% of their gross incomes on their rent, which is double the average among households with mortgages.
- One in ten working parents – equivalent to over three quarters of a million people – had gone to the extreme of skipping meals to help pay for their home.
- Two thirds (66%) of private renters in England are not saving anything towards a deposit’ This has increased from 53% two years ago.
- Of those renters in England who are planning to buy their own home, more than a third (35%) think it will take them over a decade to save enough for a deposit.
- In England, almost 450,000 families live in overcrowded conditions.
I spoke to Councillor David Shields, Labour Cabinet Member for Health and Community Safety at Southampton City Council, about the subject of homelessness in our city. “We currently face an enormous housing crisis in Southampton, with the demand for homes in many areas exceeding the available supply. Clearly building more homes, at prices and rents that people can afford, is a big part of the solution. I am very unhappy with the growing number of people on our streets who are without a permanent roof over their head, and who are often forced to sleep rough.”
The figures supplied by Councillor Shields show the real extent of Southampton’s housing crisis: “There are probably at any one time, at least 500 people in Southampton with the threat of homelessness of some form or other hanging over their heads. The vast majority of our population experiencing destitution or at imminent risk of being homeless are hidden. The City Council currently has 8,000 people on the housing waiting list, of whom half are single persons.”
When asked how the local council are planning to improve this situation, Councillor Shields said: “Our Labour Council will bring forward plans to regenerate large sections of the city centre creating 4,000 homes. We are committed to building further Extra Care housing, especially on the east of the city where there are shortages.” The council seem to be sticking to their word, as a few days after our interview, Southampton City Council announce that 44 temporary homes are being built in a bid to help those in need of affordable housing, homeless families and displaced families.
Councillor Shields continues: “The City Council – working with local health services, voluntary organisations, faith groups and others – does a fantastic job in preventing homelessness and supporting people who present to us with accommodation. Typically our homeless prevention team at the City Council works with up to 1,000 clients each year desperately seeking help with housing and I’m justifiably proud about how well we do this, at a time when demand and pressures are constantly on the increase.”
I also spoke to Laurie Anderson, the Salvation Army’s Assistant Regional Manager of its Homelessness Services Unit for Southampton. “In Southampton, The Salvation Army runs the Booth Centre, which is an accommodation and resettlement centre for people who have experienced homelessness. Many of the people at the Booth Centre have a range of complex needs and we support them to make the changes they need to their lives so that they can break out of the cycle of homelessness. Residents can learn life skills and gain qualifications through working with our social enterprises, so that they can re-gain their confidence to help re-build their lives.
The Salvation Army works with Hampshire Probation; Southampton Drug and Alcohol Recovery Services and the employment and training provider Maximus to provide support services for our residents. We also work closely with the Southampton Early Intervention in Psychosis team.”
In terms of a solution, according to Councillor Shields, “we need to acknowledge the need to rebuild a support infrastructure for people affected by homelessness to allow us to intervene earlier to prevent homelessness and its causes.
Many of the underlying problems associated with begging – the housing crisis, an unrelenting assault on public service budgets, reductions and caps in many welfare benefits – urgently need to be addressed by central government if we are to take the rise in homelessness and the numbers of people sleeping rough on our streets seriously.”