Saturday, 20 July 2024

No Place Like Home

In September 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote an article for the 'Moravian Messenger' outlining how Governments across the four nations of the UK had led a concerted and collaborative effort to ensure people who were homeless were provided with accommodation. It was an impressive and effective response which helped keep both homeless people and the wider public safe in the face of a public health emergency. It was also, if needed, a powerful illustration of what could be done to tackle a centuries-old problem when there was both public support and the political will to act.

Three years on, the plight of the homeless across the UK is again making the headlines. Official estimates suggest that over 300,000 people (more than half of them children) in the UK may be experiencing the worst form of homelessness this winter. Like previous winters some of them will undoubtedly die on the streets of one of the richest nations in the world. This figure is likely to be an underestimate as it counts only people who make themselves known to the relevant authorities.
There are many more, referred to as the 'hidden homeless' who are not included.

In recent months there has again been increasing media and public attention on the growing number of people in Britain who have no place to call home. Emergency pandemic measures to prevent evictions have ended and additional allowances paid to enable people to meet their housing costs during the crisis have been withdrawn. Coupled with the pressures caused by inflation, the spiraling cost of living and rising rent/mortgage costs it is no surprise that there is a sharp upward trend in the number of individuals and families who find themselves without a home.

The increased profile which has been afforded by the media to the issue is also undoubtedly linked to the announcement by Prince William of his 'Homeward' Initiative at the end of June. Dedicated to ending homelessness, it is fair to say the initiative has divided opinion: most welcomed his support, but a few commentators felt it was inappropriate for someone with his immense wealth and extensive property holdings to align himself with addressing the plight of people who are living in poverty and have no home at all. Irrespective of your personal opinion on his intervention it is, I hope, hard to disagree with his stated view that 'homelessness should not exist in a modern and progressive society' and his belief that 'everyone should have a safe and secure home.'

What does it mean to have no place to call home?

Thankfully most, if not all of us, who are reading this article will have a home - many of us may also take the safety and security of our home for granted.
But what does it mean to have no place to call home? Homelessness is more than rooflessness. Rough sleeping is the most obvious example of someone not having a home, but most homelessness is not visible in this way and most homeless people do not sleep on the streets. The official definition is someone who does not have a suitable and permanent home. This covers people living temporarily in Bed & Breakfast establishments or hostel accommodation and those sleeping on a friend's sofa, car, shed or tent. It includes people living in conditions which are so poor or unsafe that it is not considered reasonable for them to remain there: examples are people who are victims of domestic violence or someone living in a property with no basic amenities such as running water or an inside toilet.
For those individuals and the families who have no place to call home, the experience, however, is not just about a lack of physical shelter or a lack of amenities, it is one of being excluded from normal society and often isolated from family and friends. Many essential services such as getting access to a GP or registering for a local school are linked to where we live, even getting a job is difficult without a permanent address. People who are homeless can be placed by the authorities in temporary accommodation which is far away from the family, friends or services they rely on for support.

Why do people become homeless?

Homelessness can happen to anyone at any time in their life. The fundamental reasons leading to homelessness are poverty and a lack of decent affordable housing. This has been exacerbated, in recent years, by an inadequate level of public investment in building and maintaining social housing and an over reliance on a less regulated private rented sector to provide homes for people who are on lower incomes. The availability of homes in the private sector has reduced as properties, particularly those located in cities and areas which attract visitors, have been displaced into the AirBnB market. Rising interest rates have also encouraged private landlords with mortgages on their properties to sell up and leave this sector.

The people behind the statistics are diverse and varied. Becoming homeless is very rarely linked with the personal characteristics or shortcomings of an individual. For most it is triggered by a change in their circumstances, generally outside their control, which leads to a crisis. This could be the breakdown of a relationship, leaving care/the armed forces/hospital or prison. It could be actual or threatened violence. Often it is a sharp reduction in household income linked to the loss of job, the onset of ill health or the death of a partner. For most it will be a transitional instance which typically will take 2-3 years to resolve (although for some it can be much longer). For others the problem can be compounded by mental health/addiction issues and can lead to a persistent cycle of repeat homelessness throughout their lives.

What can we do about it?

Homelessness in the UK is a long-standing and deep-rooted problem but it is not an intractable one - it is an issue we can, and should, do something about. Other countries such as Finland can claim enviable success in this area but tackling poverty, addressing the shortage of decent affordable housing, and providing support services, when necessary, is inescapably a political decision.

It is worth noting, the scale and nature of response of governments across the UK is varied, reflecting the position of local decision makers, with the best safety nets being offered in Scotland and Wales. Recent research (Crisis GB, Homelessness Monitor 2022) shows different approaches and their effectiveness. It shows that the number of people who experience the most acute form of homelessness is lower in Scotland, which has stronger legislative protection and a larger number of socially owned homes. The focus in Wales is on preventing homelessness and the provision of support for people when rehoused. Despite some progress, it remains irrefutable that within all four countries this is an issue about which more can be done.

It is not just during a pandemic that homelessness should be perceived as a societal challenge that requires a societal response. A survey conducted in May 2023, prior to the announcement of the 'Homeward' Initiative confirmed that 'the public see homelessness in UK today as a serious, and complex challenge, but one we can and should, to do more to address'.

Public Perception of Homelessness Survey: Latest Findings

8 in 10 think homelessness is a serious problem in the UK and 7 in 10 think society does not pay enough attention to ending homelessness.

8 in 10 think homelessness can happen to anyone and 1 in 5 have experience with homelessness.

7 in 10 support ending homelessness and 6 in 10 think there are plenty of things we can do to end homelessness.

Public Perception of Homelessness Survey 2023, conducted by IPSOS on behalf of Royal Foundation of Prince and Princess of Wales.

Significantly this is not all about resources: homelessness and poor housing costs the UK Treasury many millions of pounds each year. Let's hope the determination expressed by the 'Homeward' Initiative to end homelessness in the UK, making it rare, brief and unrepeated for those who experience it, is more lasting than that associated with the pandemic. Ultimately it will be judged on its ability to maintain the momentum of public support and to act as a catalyst in securing a permanent political commitment to ensuring that everyone in the UK has a safe and secure home.

Sr Janet Wray
Gracehill

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