In my work among rough sleepers, one of the reoccurring themes and principle causes of frustration is seeing a lack of suitable accommodation. One of the reasons is there are not enough affordable homes being built to match demand. One of the tragedies of today’s have / have not society is there are many authorities who choose to ignore the homeless plight and cruelly focus on merely moving on homeless people who are found in public places. While in my voluntary activities, working alongside many others, paid and unpaid, I find we can do a lot to help homeless people with their various needs, but often the maybe most important one where we would like to help – getting people housed, we can’t meet as places for them to live do not seem to exist. Even for those who are completely compos mentis, engaging with the system and doing all the right things, it is often difficult to find somewhere half decent. For those who aren’t, it is nigh impossible unless picked up by some statutory or charitable agency that is able and willing to help.
The issue of support is a biggie but it is not going to be the focus of this blog other than to remark that without suitable support homeless people often don’t make it when they are accommodated, often as a result of lifestyle issues such as drugs and alcohol or mental ill health, where there often seems to be little help. The result is they may find themselves back onto the streets, and I can think of many of my homeless friends who have been in that situation. But back to the subject of a lack of housing, the need is dire as any search for the stats on this matter will show. While it is true there are many more unoccupied units in properties than there are numbers of people looking for somewhere to live, there seems little being done to change that situation, mainly because the law often doesn’t compel these properties to be put to use.
As I survey the various accommodation that is available, there seems to be two main categories: private rented and social housing, and perhaps a much smaller third that may be under either category: hostels and the like. I grew up in a Council house in the 1950’s and 60’s and I know how important this was for my parents, who were on limited incomes and where the alternatives were also limited. Later on, when I was working and drawing a decent wage, I managed to buy my parent’s Council House at a generous discount, under a right to buy scheme. As I survey the current situation for social housing, I see too many people wanting to live in these places and too few properties being available. When it comes to homeless people without child dependants (usually single), who make up most of the rough sleeper population, the opportunities to enter social housing is almost zero, given the priority criteria operating. It was with some consternation I learn that the Conservatives recently announced they would bring back the right to buy scheme given the need for affordable housing is so acute. To their credit and some might say it is a mere token, the present administration of Southend Council are building again, after many years, social housing in the town, which seems to me to be a step in the right direction.
When it comes to the private sector, housing can range from mansions to houses of multiple occupation, where several people live in the same house, often sharing facilities. While there are exceptions, most landlords are intent on maximizing profit and minimizing risk. Given today’s climate favours the landlord, given the severe shortage of suitable accommodation to meet demand, they are often in a strong position to dictate terms. Not only can they charge higher rents, according to the demands, they can also pick and choose tenants and require rent deposits, rent in advance and guarantors, which puts much that might otherwise be available out of the reach of homeless folk, who usually have to rely on benefits (assuming they qualify) and if they work the income they derive is usually low. Sometimes all that is available to them is bad accommodation owned by bad landlords who have little interest in carrying out repairs and improvements on their properties, with the law being such that there is often little the tenant can do about it.
In the lead up to the forthcoming general election, I would suggest that these matters should be among the important issues that need to be debated, not just in the context of homelessness but for those who come close to becoming homeless or who have to endure sub-standard accommodation. With all the parties having published their manifestos, there is every opportunity for people to find out how each party might respond and hold them accountable should they be elected. Regarding the Conservatives, while it is true they have had an economic crisis to deal with, they must be partly held accountable for the deteriorating situation we are seeing and ask them in the light of what we are now seeing how they can justify selling off Council houses? This does not let Labour off the hook. The situation was still bad when they last held office and they should be held at least partly to blame. While UKIP seem to have some good ideas, there are question marks over their ability to deliver and how foreign nationals might be treated. The Greens pledge to build many new affordable houses is commendable but at what cost?
The point here is not to side with one political party over another but rather to make it clear there is a housing crisis and to bring politicians to task when it comes to addressing the needs, coming up with workable solutions and delivering on their promises. While my interest is primarily in the homeless, there are many who aren’t homeless who have need of decent accommodation. Seeing people sleep rough on the streets is distressing, even though it is easy for those of us who are aware of what is happening to be immune to the underlying distress that many of these folk are experiencing, and easier still for those who pretend there isn’t a problem by ignoring it. It is a national disgrace that the numbers of rough sleepers across the length and breadth of our land have risen steeply in recent years and, while recognizing there are no simple solutions, not having at least satisfactory solutions to these pressing needs is unacceptable.