Time to end the blight of rough sleeping in the UK

The recent figures released by Government on rough sleeping are quite stark. Rough sleeping went up by 16% over the past year to 4,134 people. Since 2010 recorded rough sleeping has gone up over 100% from 1,768 to 4,134. I suspect that is an under estimate of the reality on the ground. The London CHAIN rough sleeper monitoring data collected by the homeless charity St Mungo’s recorded the number of rough sleepers on our streets in the capital over the year at close to 8,000 individuals.

Over the years I have spent a considerable amount of time working with the homeless and in particular rough sleepers. During my time as an MP I supported Braintree Foyer and New Directions – both shelters run by the Salvation Army. In the past 3 years I have worked at Crisis at Christmas at their addiction centre and have been working at a soup kitchen in Central London for the past couple of years. I decided to capitalize on this experience and have been Chairing a Report on ending Rough Sleeping and reducing Homelessness at the Centre for Social Justice with the support of Crisis (the report is due out in mid-March).

Many of the rough sleepers I have met over the years often have complex needs – usually a combination of mental health issues, substance abuse and family breakdown. Once they find themselves on the streets, their lives generally spiral downwards. Yet if we look at the numbers they are not huge. Yes, every homeless person is one too many. No society should have anyone sleeping on their streets. Yet the problem persists. To overcome the problem, it’s just a question of political will and financial commitment.

Brookes Newmark at Crisis at Christmas in 2014
Brooks Newmark at Crisis at Christmas in 2014

So what is the Government doing? One of the Theresa May’s first acts when she became Prime Minister was to announce a commitment of £40 million to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness.

But most important of all was the support of Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government with responsibility for addressing homelessness, who formally gave Government support for Bob Blackman’s Homeless Reduction Bill, which had its Third and Final Reading in the Commons at the end of January. This will be the first piece of legislation on Homelessness in 40 years!

The Bill which had cross party support, focusses on the prevention of homelessness and creates a duty of care for local authorities to help anyone eligible and threatened with homelessness within 56 days (and not the current 28 days), regardless of priority need status, local connection or intentionality. The Bill which has yet to go through the Lords, I hope will find itself on the statute books before the end of this Parliament.

The report that I am working on is very focused at the sharp end and is seeking to develop a clear strategy for the Government to end the blight of rough sleeping, in addition to reducing homelessness. My solution is based on the Finnish Housing first model which provides support for individuals with complex needs 365 days a year. Finland has all but eradicated rough sleeping and reduced homelessness significantly. While hostels provide a short term solution for those who find themselves temporarily homeless, they do not provide a long term solution for many rough sleepers, who struggle with complex needs. The Housing First model offers the personalized support many chronic long term rough sleepers need, including access to mental health services, drug and alcohol support and training for employment if and when they are ready.

Finding a home is the first step on the road to recovery. Without a home, somewhere to live, an individual cannot begin his or her recovery.

Many of the Jewish charities that I have seen over the years understand this. Having somewhere to live is a basic human right.

Theresa May, has said she wants social justice as the cornerstone of her premiership. Let us hope she builds on Bob Blackman’s Homeless Reduction Bill and adopts some of the recommendations in my forthcoming report.  The eradication of rough sleeping is achievable not just in our life time but in the life time of a single Parliament. If the Prime Minister wants to leave a legacy, I can think of no better legacy than the eradication of rough sleeping on our streets once and for all.

About the Author
Brooks Newmark was MP for Braintree (2005-15) and Minister for Civil Society. Currently he is a Research Associate in the Politics Department at St Antony's College Oxford.
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