As many in the sector will already be aware, the annual rough sleeper figures for England were officially published by the MHCLG on Thursday 31st of January; showing a 2% reduction in rough sleeping nationally from 2017-2018, and a steep 60% increase over the same period in Birmingham. These figures employ an, at best, flawed methodology, based as they are on either a ‘snapshot’ count from each council area on a single evening, or an estimate based on intelligence from local area stakeholders. In 2015 the UK Statistics Authority denounced these figures as absent of ‘trustworthiness’; potentially subject to political manipulation and thus lacking the quality standards to be classed as national statistics. And yet, they persist.
In the last few years at least, the release of these figures has engendered a largely predictable, and predictably depressing, series of events:
Local authorities with an increase in numbers react with the precise and reserved defensiveness of a government institution undoubtedly hamstrung by an absence of funding; those with a reduction in numbers might, with the same precise reserve, point tentatively to what they appear to be doing ‘right’; which is so often not at all dissimilar to what those with an increase are doing. We may look to the figures against Brighton and Hove (64% reduction) and Manchester (31% increase) and suggest that there is a great disparity in resources and will to tackle the problem, yet both received funding from the Government Rough Sleepers’ Initiative (RSI). Are we also to suggest Manchester aren’t doing it ‘right’? It would be a bravely misguided commentator who suggests so. Are we to believe that the 60% increase in Birmingham is symbolic of a lack of collective will; of a depletion in activity, innovation or care? Avowedly and unequivocally not. Is the decrease in some neighbouring authorities because they have leapt ahead with their innovation and their practice or made swifter use of their RSI funding or for initiatives such as Housing First? Possibly. It could also be that the migration and placement of rough sleepers into surrounding areas has caused a more uneven distribution; or that Birmingham carries out a comprehensive and integral ‘count’ and is a large, Metropolitan City subject to population influx, transience and, quite often, the promise of adequate accommodation that never fully materialises. But before we fall into the trap of attaching meaning to figures that defy close analysis, it is important to say that Birmingham has an incredibly committed approach to partnership working. It has some of the strongest, brightest and most dedicated organisations and individuals that the sector has to offer. It is not for an absence of will, or of effort, that these figures we try not to attach profound meaning to, but often find somehow impossible to ignore, have increased so dramatically.
Charities and commentators will often make statements about the problematic nature of the rough sleeper figures; warn against an over-reliance on their significance and allude, or boldly point, to the myriad of policy decisions and political ideologies that both drive and sustain our current, collective crisis.
And for central government, these figures are merely a driver for a series of platitudinal statements, heavy reliance on the words ‘committed’ and ‘dedicated’ and a focus on a series of sticking-plaster initiatives that appear to wilfully elide the distinction between cause and effect; as if rough sleeping were a silo phenomenon that can be ‘ended’ and resolved by time-limited grant funding. It may seem like an obvious point to many, although one worth repeating, that what is needed to end rough sleeping, and homelessness, is not merely funding channelled into activities for rough sleepers – those at the sharpest end of what is a vast and complex issue. What is needed is wholescale systemic and policy change, political will and what at present feels like a radical cultural and philosophical shift in the way we apportion resources; in our notions of ‘blame’ and ‘deservedness’ and in how we approach, understand and assist those who need it when they need it the most. The list of antecedent policies that have contributed to our current situation feel well-rehearsed to those in the sector, and it feels frustratingly obvious to point out what needs to happen if we are ever to achieve real, lasting change. It seems like a flagrant rejection of the laws of cause and effect for our government to refuse to take account, and become accountable, for the devastating effects of their political choices. It is, though, important to remember that ideology does not often adhere to logic, and so we must repeat. What we need is much, much, more suitable and truly affordable housing; adequately resourced local authorities; a properly funded NHS and social care system, and with that properly funded and monitored supported housing, with a greater link between cost and quality and designed-in flexibility to avoid disincentives to enter employment. We need to overhaul our criminal justice system so that prison sentences are rehabilitative, and bring an end to short prison sentences for crimes borne of poverty. We must build more social – not ‘affordable’ – housing and demand that social housing providers stop excluding people based on their perceived suitability as a tenant or their likely ability to pay the rent. And with this we need stronger rights for private renters and more realistic and workable Local Housing Allowance Rates. There must be a drastic rethink of Universal Credit; a wholesale rejection of the stigmatic labelling of social housing tenants and benefit claimants; an end to punitive sanction regimes and to equally punitive, dehumanising and degrading immigration policies.
This all seems at once both revolutionary and prosaic, but they will, with all the authority of a figure behind a dispatch box, tell you that it is not that simple, and that there are ‘many complex reasons’ why people become homeless or are forced to sleep on our streets. And part of that is true; there are real lives behind these statistics; each body transposed onto a spreadsheet is a human life as worthy and as complex as we all are. A series of digits on a spreadsheet could never hope to convey this reality, but all the funding pumped into moving these lives off the streets is for nothing if we do not seek to push for, and achieve, that wholesale shift in our collective thinking. Unless things change, other lives, and it feels pertinent to talk about lives; about humanity; will surely move in to take their place.
And perhaps the biggest fear is that those lives lived in doorways or under the shroud of a sleeping bag will become metonymic for everything that is ‘wrong’ with this country, and thus when we’ve managed to move those lives elsewhere – anywhere – we can roll our sleeves back down and carry on. For we are in danger of creating an environment within which we judge ‘success’ – as a local authority, or as a country – on an ability to make lives less visible. Unless we have the infrastructure and the resources to meaningfully and adequately house and support people, we do little but conceal suffering. Watching the furl of your breath in a freezing cold, damp and miserable box room is a reality for many whose only alternative would be to watch that breath take its shape in the open air. The difference, in many cases, is literally and only a roof.
Rough sleeper counts and the ensuing discussions and spotlight on the sharpest end of our homelessness crisis not only give a skewed perspective on the scale and depth of a devastating human crisis, and of the ability of resource-starved councils to stem a tide of circumstances largely beyond their control, but also have a tendency to contribute to a frenzy of anti-immigration sentiment; much of which can be seen without skimming too deeply below the surface of any social media platform. We must ensure that the collective statements our sector makes, within which we allude to the structural issues and economic decisions that drive and sustain homelessness, that there is a strong position on, and promotion of, the idea that the distribution of resources is not a zero -sum game. Rough sleeping has not risen; we are not a country in the midst of a homelessness crisis, because newly arrived communities are taking ‘our’ resources or taking them from those who deserve them more. Our society dictates that those who have the least very often remain with the least and it is Capitalism’s greatest trick to convince those who have little, or nothing, that their situation is caused by others who also have nothing. Pit our most marginalised groups against each other and it very helpfully takes the heat away from those with both the resources and the power to affect change. We need to get better at incorporating migrant homelessness, and the policy decisions that drive and sustain this, into our rhetoric in an inclusive and destigmatising way. For these are all jagged parts of the same, ‘hostile’, whole.
If homelessness exists because there is something fundamentally wrong with our society and the way we distribute resources and treat human need, then we must bring our immigration policies into that conversation and talk about homelessness as a societal issue; as a collective problem and one that is not caused by those who come to the UK to seek a better or a safer life, but by those who decide who deserves one.
Research and Best Practice Lead.
Published date: 07 February 2019