Beatrice Orchard and Dan Dumoulin from our Policy and Public Affairs team consider homelessness in the election debate so far.
There have been a couple of notable moments during the election campaign so far when members of the public have challenged party leaders on homelessness.
First, there was the woman who was moved during the live TV leaders’ debate to shout about “homeless people on the streets who have been in the services”. Then there was a young person who told David Cameron during a Radio 1 Live Lounge interview how she felt let down by her local authority’s response when she approached them for help with her own homelessness.
In response, Cameron said “the number of people sleeping rough has actually come down.”
But the government’s own official figures show that the number of people sleeping rough in England has actually increased by 55 per cent since 2010. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, rough sleeping rose from 1,768 in 2010 to 2,744 by 2014.
What has caused this increase?
Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that the government is wholly responsible for this. Levels of homelessness and rough sleeping are driven by a complex interplay of factors. The global recession, the decades old shortage of social housing and inadequate local authority responses are all partly to blame.
Decisions taken by government, however, do often have dramatic and enduring impact on our clients’ lives. There have been some significant changes over the last five years for those we work and for services in the homelessness sector.
To help tackle rough sleeping, the government has funded the No Second Night Out initiative, which aims to support new rough sleepers to come off the street as quickly as possible. In London, thanks in no small part to No Second Night Out, in 2013 -14, 70% of new rough sleepers in the capital were only seen sleeping rough once. So more people are ending up on our streets, but in some places they are more likely to have effective help to get off the streets than they were five years ago.
However, we are concerned that the limits on housing benefit payments introduced by the coalition government are likely to be contributing to the increase in rough sleeping; support for housing costs for people on low incomes has simply not kept up with the increasing cost of housing, especially in London.
Homelessness often affects people who face several other serious personal issues, such as mental ill health, problematic drug and alcohol use and low level basic skills. St Mungo’s Broadway relies mainly on local authority funding, as well as charitable donations, to support the people who live in our projects to address these issues.
Many local authorities have felt like they had little choice but to reduce the funding available for these types of services, as their own funding from central government has been dramatically cut to reduce the deficit.
St Mungo’s Broadway has worked hard to adapt to this new environment, and is still able to provide effective services. The merger between or two predecessor organisations is helping us reduce our overheads, for example. New funding streams made available by the government, such as the Homelessness Transition Fund, have also helped to fill the gaps to some degree. But there will be a limit to the cuts homelessness charities can absorb and people will suffer if funding continues to be reduced.
So what should the next Government do to tackle homelessness?
As we set out in our own manifesto for the general election, more action is needed to prevent people who ask their local authority for help from ending up on the streets. Such as the woman who challenged Cameron on Radio 1.
The new government should also ensure that sufficient support is available for people to recover from homelessness.
The STRIVE pilot, and recently published ideas around how to provide extra support to people with the most complex problems, show that the Coalition Government developed a good understanding of the problems people who are homeless often face.
We hope that whoever is in power after 7 May will continue this work. But they will also need to be bolder in their approach in order to stop rising rough sleeping and help more people to recover from homelessness.
We are hopeful that if voters are expressing an interest in these issues, then politicians will too.