BRIAN is hoping to move to Cumbria, across the Pennines from
where he grew up in Sunderland. He might take up sea-fishing, which
he used to do as a child, and will see more of his family. He also
hopes that leaving London, where there are "more bookies than there
are shops", might help him kick his compulsive gambling problem. It
has dogged him since childhood, and has resulted in a peripatetic
"Being in employment is very dangerous for me, because I tend to
use my money before I pay my rent," he explains. "I like working.
I've always worked on buildings, but with [my] gambling, it's very
Since 1991, when he split up with his wife, he has lived in
London, spending about third of the intervening years on the
streets while passing through numerous properties, rented from the
council, housing associations, and private landlords. He once spent
three years in a house in Walthamstow, but one day, after taking on
some casual work, he found that, without warning, his benefits had
been stopped. "I could have gone the next day and reclaimed it, but
I didn't; so I managed to lose that property through rent
Then there were the years spent in Sedgley, Dudley, during which
he went into rehab for his gambling. After the people he met
through the programme moved away, he started gambling again, owing
money to people who came knocking on his door. A £50 loan ballooned
to become £60,000.
"When you are a gambler, if someone offers you money, you take
it! They would come when you had nearly finished paying off your
loan, and say, 'Would you like another loan?'" he says. "They would
always give you more, even though they knew you were not
Azim, aged 41, also found himself on the streets after breaking
up with his wife. He came to Europe from Algeria, aged 16, and has,
he says, always "worked and saved". For a while, he stayed with a
friend, who eventually found a girlfriend and asked him to leave.
In Birmingham, he stole trousers and shoes: "I was so dirty, and
thinking, 'My life is finished.' I wanted to kill myself."
The police advised him to return to London. Not seeing his
daughter for a year-and-a-half - she is nearly two - has left him
with terrible depression, he says. He can't sleep, and struggles to
work. He has been told he will have to go to court to secure access
Both Brian and Azim are clients at the West London Day Centre,
which provides health, housing, and education services for
rough-sleepers in Westminster. There is a drop-in service every
morning from Monday to Friday, and access to case-workers. Brian
has been found a studio flat in Edmonton, and is being helped to
make the transition back to the north. Azim, who struggles to read
and write English, is receiving help to complete the forms
necessary to begin the fight for access to his daughter.
IT IS becoming more difficult to find accommodation for clients,
says Karen Mwaniki, a senior project worker. In April, the Caritas
Social Action Network reported that, in more that 450 agencies for
the homeless, 32 per cent of people who felt able to move on from
hostels and shelters into rented accommodation were unable to do
so, ow-ing to the lack of affordable housing.
Ms Mwaniki says that a significant number of clients are not UK
nationals, and a tightening of the rules has made it difficult to
secure housing benefit for those without a resident's permit or
There are also challenges for clients aged under 35, who are now
eligible only for a room in a shared house. Clients aged over 35
who are working but lack a deposit can also struggle, she says,
because landlords want people on "secure benefits".
This month, the Housing Justice network of church and community
night shelters published information about the 1577 guests who
stayed in its 24 shelters, hosted by 450 churches, synagogues, and
mosques. This suggests that 34 per cent of guests moved into
accommodation - about 26 per cent into a hostel or the private
The Revd Annie Kirke, a pioneer of missional communities in the
diocese of London, co-ordinates the Westminster Churches Winter
Shelter (WCWS), in which six churches work in partnership with the
West London Day Centre.
She reports that they have overcome the perception in local
government that churches are "just do-gooders [who are]
exacerbating the problem". She recalls being asked: "What if
homeless people are lying, and the Church is being complicit in
Despite its success stories, Housing Justice remains concerned
about the barriers to resettlement. Alison Gelder, its chief
executive, estimates that in London only five per cent of shared
properties are actually affordable for the under-35s, even though
they are eligible for only a room.
THE impact of the Government's welfare reforms on homelessness is
being tracked by Homeless Monitor, led by the University of York
and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. A report published last
December suggested that, after falling sharply for six years, the
number of cases of homelessness accepted by councils rose by a
third between 2010 and 2013. About 22 per cent of these cases were
precipitated by the loss of private-sector tenancies.
Welfare-benefit cuts, as well as constraints on housing access
and supply, are critical to overall levels of homelessness, the
organisation says. On the so-called bedroom tax, or "spare-room
subsidy", it reports that, "in many parts of the country, social
landlords simply do not have sufficient stock available to transfer
tenants [who are] willing to move to smaller accommodation."
Statistics leaked from the Department for Work and Pensions
suggest that average rent arrears for benefit claimants in a pilot
of the Universal Credit have doubled to £942.
Although she would like to see the Government intervene - in
part by capping rents - Ms Gelding argues that churches can't sit
back and wait for it to do so. "There are an awful lot of
buy-to-let landlords in church congregations," she says. "If those
people could see it as their Christian duty to take the lowest rent
they could manage on, and accept benefit payments, that would make
Housing Justice suggests that Christians should consider renting
out spare rooms, renovating empty homes, converting church
buildings, and using church land to build affordable homes. Its
pamphlet Faith in Affordable Housing provides practical
guidance on this latter point.
The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, who chairs
Housing Justice, says: "Anglican dioceses are also landlords. We're
encouraging them, if they are looking at developing bits of land,
to consider housing as a priority, and ideally affordable
Ultimately, however, the Government must take action, the Bishop
says. "We simply have not, for 20 years or more, provided the
number of homes that are needed. There are brownfield sites all
over the place that are not being built on."
Those who simply sit on land should be penalised, he argues,
while private landlords, who were "understandably worried" about
taking on tenants from vulnerable sectors of society, could be
incentivised through deposit guarantees.
THE Government has not been inactive. Although it has refused to
set any overall targets for housing supply, house-building is at
its highest level (137,780 in the past 12 months) since 2007. It is
offer-ing housing-providers a govern-ment guarantee on the debt
they raise to deliver affordable homes; and it aims to support the
delivery of 200,000 new affordable homes by 2019. It has identified
public-sector land that could be sold and used to build 100,000 new
homes. A total of £400 million has been allocated to tackling
homeless- ness over the course of this Parliament.
For Brian, though, back at the day centre, the emphasis on
bricks and mortar misses the point. "They put you in somewhere, and
there's no back-up," he says. "People are on the street because
they've got problems, and if you don't deal with the problems, they
usually end up back out on the street again. . .
"If you're sitting looking at four walls all day long, it makes
life very difficult for you. Actually, I'm gambling even more than
before now that I'm in somewhere, because . . . there's no
connection with anybody."
This month, Independent Age and the International Longevity
Centre reported that more than 1.2 million older men reported
feeling socially isolated.
Charities such as the West London Day Centre attempt to help
people make the transition back to ordinary, communal living, but
the task is a large one. "Living on the street causes people to
develop all sorts of coping mechanisms," Ms Kirke says. "They grow
a tough skin."
But, with the right sort of support, this can be righted: "Even
two years on the streets can be undone in just three months,
through a group of people being loving, attendant, and
Some names in this article have been changed at the request
of the interviewees.