Dominic Williamson

With rough sleeping still rising, we need political leadership like this

June 30, 2016 :: 1.18pm
CHAIN blog 1

Yesterday, amidst the political uncertainty following last week’s referendum result, it was good to be able to welcome a very positive initiative taken in Parliament to help the growing number of homeless people across the country. Our Executive Director of Strategy and Policy, Dominic Williamson, explains more about the Homelessness Reduction Bill.

Conservative MP Bob Blackman has announced that he will lay a Private Members Bill before parliament called the Homelessness Reduction Bill.

Mr Blackman is second on the list of MPs who have a chance to put forward a Private Members Bill in this session, which means there should be sufficient time for his Bill to be debated.

If the Bill wins enough support from MPs, and ideally from government ministers, it will require councils in England to take some additional steps to prevent and relieve homelessness.

The full details are yet to be drafted but we expect Mr Blackman’s Bill to contain amendments to the existing homelessness legislation based on recommendations from an expert panel which published its findings earlier this year .

I was pleased to be a member of the panel, which was convened by Crisis, alongside local councils, lawyers, academics and other housing experts.

Our proposed reforms, largely based on changes that have already been implemented in Wales, would require councils to provide more help to prevent homelessness.

The reforms would also do more to help eligible households who are actually homeless but are left out by the existing “all or nothing” approach. We hope this help will extend to providing emergency interim accommodation for those with nowhere safe to stay.

Importantly, our proposals were careful not to weaken the existing protections offered to families with children and other vulnerable groups who already meet the “priority need” criteria for housing.

The importance of Mr Blackman’s Bill was underlined by the latest rough sleeping data for London, also published yesterday.

The GLA’s annual CHAIN report showed that the total number of people found sleeping rough by outreach teams in London increased by 7% in 2015-16 compared to the previous 12 months.

This continues the steep upward trend seen across the country over the past five years.

These figures are deeply troubling. Every instance of rough sleeping is an emergency situation. Sleeping on the streets puts people in danger, never mind the well-evidenced longer term impact on physical and mental health.

In the past, governments, councils and charities working together have dramatically reduced the numbers sleeping rough. Now, as the figures go up again, we have two choices:

We could gradually get used to seeing more and more people sleeping on our streets, ignore the fact that each is an individual emergency. We might even justify inaction by convincing ourselves it’s down to individual, societal or even global forces beyond our control. Or claim we don’t have the resources to do more.

Or – as Mr Blackman has now done – we can face up to the problem,  show some leadership and embrace all possible solutions.

As one of the largest homelessness charities, St Mungo’s has accepted the challenge of leadership in the face of rising rough sleeping and ever tightening resources.

Our new five year strategy sets out our clear ambition to halve the number of people rough sleeping in the areas where we work.

We can do a lot, especially when we can mobilise the good will, talent and resources in the community.

But this won’t be enough. We also need to fill the gaps in the existing legislation that leave too many people without the help they need to avoid sleeping rough.

People like Mary, who one of our outreach teams started working with in May.

Despite a serious health condition and trauma associated with long term domestic abuse, Mary was sent away by her council and told to come back when she had evidence that she was vulnerable because of her health condition.

No one should be left like Mary, with no option but to sleep rough.

Of course changing the law isn’t the whole answer, but a new legal framework will help those councils already going above and beyond their statutory duties.

It will also bring the others in line with good practice on homelessness prevention that actually saves money in the long term.

At a time when politics is riven with division, Mr Blackman’s initiative is surely something that all MPs can unite behind.

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