Homelessness: A Case for Preventative Action

In January 2016, a medical doctor noted his surgery, the Brighton Homeless Healthcare centre, had seen 21 deaths last year alone. His figures also include 15 deaths in 2013 and 15 in 2014. Winter is fast approaching and preventive actions need to be explored. In July 2016, doctors have claimed the state of emergency accommodation in the city could contribute to a rise in homeless deaths. The doctor noted all the deaths were preventable.

The doctor said: “It’s a tragedy really that we have people dying on our streets. It’s looking like homelessness is only going to get worse over the next few years and because of that, due to cuts, there will be more deaths too.”

It has been noted that “council budgets are being cut, more than 20,000 people on the waiting list for housing and no easy answers.”

Needless to say, homelessness certainly involves more the narrow and farcical narrative of people without a home or an accommodation. It involves the intersection of visibility, oppression, domination, poor public policies and also a political decision of neglecting basic rights. Homeless people are under an oppressive and disempowering political discourse passive to punishment.

hlHomelessness in the UK is sometimes directly linked to people sleeping rough. However, those people sleeping rough, as the evidence suggests, are only a partial representation of the problem of those without secure accommodation. There are also some people that are staying in emergency hostels, there are refugees and there are people that are not sleeping rough but do not have any permanent accommodation, such as people staying temporarily with friends, squatting or as part of a travellers’ community. Homelessness is a common story in the UK’s current society. In 2013, 112,070 people declared themselves homeless in England. This is a 26% increase in four years. The number of people sleeping rough in London grew by 75% to a 6,437 in 2013.

There is a wide variety of reasons why people become homeless such as, relationship breakdown, domestic violence and substance misuse, people that are released from prison, people that are released from psychiatric institutions, people in debt, children that are institutionalised as asylum seekers and refugees.

Homelessness: An increasing still an acceptable social problem

Homelessness is increasing contemporary issue that can be linked with austerity measures whereby statutory homelessness services are in declining. For example, according to the neighbourhoods, communities and equalities committee (NCEC, 2015) homelessness in Brighton and Hove has increased in 2014 and the committee has expressed concerns that it might also increase next year. Furthermore, the Committee the city’s street services work with around 1,000 homeless people each year, 20 new homeless people every week. In March 2014 there were an estimated 132 rough sleepers in Brighton and Hove. It has been noted that homeless people are among the most marginalised, underpowered, and voiceless group in the west.

The administration of the marginalisation of homelessness people includes the “Public Space Protection Orders” (PSPOs). The PSPOs proposal pretended to give police and council officers the power to ban “anti-social” activities such as sleeping rough or begging. Those who breached an order could be issued with a £100 fixed penalty notice or a fine of £1,000. The PSPOs seems to be the visible hand of political administrations, the cold monster of the state, to oppress those left out of social security net because of the invisible hand of the market. There has been also posters reprimanding homeless beggars as frauds. Nottingham city council’s poster campaign on homeless begging that suggested that money to beggars goes to booze, drugs, and fraud. Are there no alternatives instead this merely punishable individualization of a serious social issue?

The impact of welfare reforms

The impact of austerity policies could have a detrimental effect on people that depend on welfare for housing. For example, The ‘Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy’ (known as the ‘bedroom tax’) in 2013’, affected an estimated 660 000 working age social housing tenants in the UK, reducing annual incomes by £624–£1144. A negative impact on mental health, family relationships, and community networks can be linked with the removal of the bedroom tax. It has been suggested that the removal of the bedroom tax has increased poverty and homelessness, and has had broad-ranging adverse effects on health, wellbeing and social relationships within this community. The public administration of welfare reforms under the politics of austerity requires the support of public opinion. It has been suggested that the bedroom tax is an ideological device which operates to increase inequality whilst deploying rhetoric of fairness.

The number of people homeless on London’s streets has more than doubled in five years and there is a link between the increase in the numbers of homeless people and punitive austerity measures. The Welfare Reform Act (2012) legislated a substantial extension and intensification of welfare conditionality, including the eventual sanction of three years without benefits. The Welfare Reform Act cut the relevance of some benefits, reducing the amount of rent that is covered for housing benefit tenants.

The former Coalition Government’s economic policy and related austerity measures have been termed “radical fiscal retrenchment”, whereby housing and welfare spending has fallen to its lowest level in over 60 years with a significant impact on vulnerable people that depend on them such as low-income families and young people under the age of 25. According to the Rough Sleeping Statistics England – Autumn (2015), in Autumn 2015 there was a total of 3,569 rough sleepers estimated in England. This is up 825 (30%) from the autumn 2014 total of 2,744. London had 940 rough sleepers in autumn 2015, which is 26% of the national figure. The number of rough sleepers has increased by 27% in London and 31% in the rest of England since autumn 2014 (The Rough Sleeping Statistics England – Autumn 2015).

The number of households placed in temporary accommodation by local authorities in England in September 2014 was the highest it had been in the last five years. It is estimated that 60,940 households had been placed in temporary accommodation by local authorities in England. The number of families with dependent children placed in bed and breakfast style accommodation increased from 630 at the end of March 2010 to 2,080 at the end of September 2014. It could also be argued that recent governmental UK welfare reforms, as currently conceptualised, fail to reflect lived reality, instead of serving to stigmatise and arguably (de)moralise vulnerable groups that depend on social welfare for survival, such as homeless people.

What can be done

First of all, on a personal level, there is a need to understand that homelessness is an issue is complex with many layers. Some people may end up homelessness as a consequence of their choices but some may end up homeless not due to that.

Social circumstances

Social factors can include poverty, inequality, housing supply and affordability, unemployment, welfare and income policies. One of the key causes of homelessness for young people is relationship breakdown. This can have an impact on the young people completing their education, getting a job and establishing a stable and secure life for themselves. Young people in this situation feel let down, rejected and lost. Some don’t know where or how to start building a new life. Many people are at significant risk of a homelessness situation occurring through losing their accommodation. This can be for a number of different reasons such as rent arrears, illness or unemployment.

Individual circumstances

Some factors and experiences can make people more vulnerable to became homeless such as poor physical health, mental health problems, alcohol and drugs issues, bereavement and experience of the criminal justice system.

What can be done?

We can also support local organisations that do a great deal of support as an emergency drop-in service for people that are homeless such as the Clock Tower Sanctuary and Turning point to name a couple.

In a broader level, there is a need for more transitional accommodations where people can live in a house or a flat on a temporary basis such as Emmaus, a homeless organisation based in Portslade. People are supported to deal with homeless linked issues such as incidence of family violence, relationship breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse etc. There are some mediation services that aim to prevent homelessness by working with families to resolve their problems such as the YMCA. The Unemployed Family Centre provides support to people that are unemployed helping people to maintain their accommodation, avoiding future homelessness.

From middle to long term, to reduce homelessness significantly there needs to be a robust discussion and a plan including a diverse range of stakeholders. Firstly, there needs to be a restructure of a strong social housing system. Social housing is also evidence based preventative measure to reduce homelessness. For example, Finland is the only European country where homelessness has decreased. The Y-Foundation is an organisation which offers rental accommodation to people who are having difficulties in finding a home for themselves. The model aim is to reduce long-term homelessness by giving people a secure accommodation. It also provides on-site personnel to help tackle risk factors such as joblessness or addiction. Secondly, there needs to be a clear policy capping private renting based on RPI (Retail price index). Finally, policy makers need to explore the idea of introducing a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis and the UBI would provide financial security.

Bruno De Oliveira is a MPhil/Ph.D. Researcher at the University of Brighton - School of Applied Social Sciences. He is also a M.A. in Community Psychology and a coffee drinker. Read other articles by Bruno.