Can the Government’s Rough Sleeping Strategy really change lives for people sleeping on our streets?

On the 13 August 2018 the Government launched its new rough sleeping strategy, setting out plans to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it by 2027.

In this guest post Stephen Bell OBE, Chief Executive of Gateshead-based charity Changing Lives, reflects on the implications for people in the North East. 

In 2017 4,751 people slept rough on an average night, a 15% increase on the previous year. Homelessness now costs the public sector over £1 billion a year. We know that the effects of cycles of poverty, insecure housing and homelessness on people and families can be devastating. For others mental health problems and addiction, combined with lack of access to services that respond appropriately to their needs, can keep people on the streets even when housing is available.

So whilst I broadly support the strategy to tackle rough sleeping in England, it simply does not go far enough to prevent the continuing rise in people affected by all forms of homelessness. 

Homelessness is a complex issue for the North East. Whilst our numbers of rough sleepers and people in temporary accommodation are some of the lowest in England, we know that poverty and complex needs are some key reasons people find themselves homeless time and time again. Austerity, cuts to services, welfare reform and the introduction of Universal Credit have all played a major role in rising levels of homelessness and rough sleeping for people in the North East. 

So what does the strategy get right? The focus on a three-step process of prevention, intervention and recovery to try and reduce rough sleeping is welcome. This is a model drawn directly from the voluntary sector where we know early intervention and prevention are key to breaking cycles of rough sleeping for good. The announcement that there will be £30m for drug and alcohol, and mental health treatment services is also important.

However, there are some fundamental areas where the Government could have gone further if it is serious in its ambition to end rough sleeping.

Firstly, as was quickly acknowledged by Communities Secretary James Brokenshire, half of the £100m funding for the strategy was “reprioritised” from existing budgets to fit the new plans. £50m against a £1bn a year problem is a drop in the ocean. To take truly sustainable steps towards ending rough sleeping, there is a need for long-term revenue spend. Resources are needed to help charities focus on preventing homelessness by offering a range of quality accommodation and support services. 

Secondly, the strategy does not address the national housing crisis. The social housing green paper, published in the same week, was supposed to do that instead. Private rented housing is often the only option for people we are helping off the streets. In a competitive market, with housing benefit rates squeezed through the introduction of Universal Credit, housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable, acerbating homeless for many. Unless genuinely affordable housing, with rents not linked to the private sector, is prioritised, then rough sleeping will be difficult to end.

Finally, the strategy does not get to grips with the enormous challenges and failures of welfare reform. The strategy does recognise that “…that the highly complex needs of some people who sleep rough can make it difficult for them to navigate the welfare system.” However there is a lack of acknowledgement of the role Universal Credit has played in directly affecting homelessness and rough sleeping in areas like the North East.

Welfare reform has meant that the poorest people in our society have become poorer, and less able to afford their housing costs. The benefits freeze and subsequent caps, bedroom tax, delays in payments (forcing people into debt), harsh sanctions for people not meeting unrealistic targets for job hunting, plus rising inflation and housing costs, mean that many more people are struggling to maintain a home they can afford.

Ultimately the strategy doesn’t address the societal and systemic issues that lead to the exclusion of people experiencing homelessness from mainstream services.

We need to recognise people on the streets as people first, build relationships with them and find out what their hopes and aspirations are to guide the support we provide.

It is the only way we can effectively and sustainably end homelessness and change lives. The rough sleeping strategy is a step in the right direction – but there’s more work to be done. 

Stephen Bell OBE
Chief Executive, Changing Lives 
Stephen.Bell@changing-lives.org.uk