Homelessness crisis is severe, say charities

08 February 2019

Bishop of Manchester is dubious about government figures

Diocese of Portsmouth

Volunteer Andrew Malbon (left, standing) serves food to guests at St Jude’s, Southsea

Volunteer Andrew Malbon (left, standing) serves food to guests at St Jude’s, Southsea

A TWO-PER-CENT decrease in the number of rough-sleepers in the UK on a single night does not reflect the “severity” of the current homelessness crisis, which would be 40 per cent worse without the work of churches and faith groups, charities have warned.

A report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, published on Thursday of last week, counted 4677 rough-sleepers on a single night in autumn of last year — down by 74 people (two per cent) on the same night in 2017.

The figure was, however, more than one-and-half times the 1768 rough-sleepers recorded in 2010: an increase of 2909 people (165 per cent) in nine years.

London has had the highest total each year since records began in 2010. The 13-per-cent increase of people sleeping rough in the capital (146) in 2017 offset the six-per-cent decrease across the rest of the UK.

For the first time, on the same night as the Government’s street count, the Christian homelessness charity Housing Justice carried out its own survey of people bedding down in night shelters in the capital. It counted 509 individuals in church- and community-run night shelters.

Based on the 1283 rough-sleepers counted by the Government in London, Housing Justice said that, without faith and community-run projects, the count would have been 40-per-cent higher.

Housing Justice’s chief executive, Kathy Mohan, said that the data “underlines the severity of the homelessness crisis” in the UK. “Despite the first decrease in a decade, it is still simply unacceptable to see such numbers of people sleeping rough — enough to almost fill the Royal Albert Hall to capacity. Each person counted has their own story of personal tragedy, often [a] failure of public policy.”

Its own snapshot revealed “how much worse this story might be without the extraordinary work” of the church and community night-shelter network, she said.

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The most drastic increase by area recorded by the Government was in the West Midlands, where 420 rough-sleepers were recorded — up by 125 people (42 per cent) in 2017. In the north-east, the figure increased by 19 per cent, from 51 to 66 people. The number of homeless people in Manchester, however, decreased by 31 per cent from 123 to 94 individuals.

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said on Wednesday that the overall decline should be taken with a “pinch of salt”, because some councils had changed the way in which they collected the data. “If we add up only the figures from those councils which used the same measuring system in both years, the total increased. The most we can say with confidence is that the rapid levels of increase over the last few years may, for now, have slowed down.”

Decreases of 21 per cent were also recorded in both the east of England and the south-west. A 17-per-cent decrease was recorded in the south-east. Dr Walker agreed that this was due largely to the hard work of communities, including places of worship. “Winter night-shelters have become as essential a part of the voluntary social fabric as foodbanks.”

On the coldest night of the year, on Thursday of last week, volunteers at St Jude’s, Southsea, in Portsmouth, offered homeless people hot food and camp beds. It is one of seven churches in the diocese which are opening their doors to vulnerable people each night until 4 March. The project is being supported by the Society of St James.

David Smith, who has been homeless for 22 years, was grateful for the support. “The most important thing is that I’m inside, and it’s brilliant that they’re providing this for us,” he said.

The chief executive of the youth homelessness charity Depaul UK, Mike Thiedke, said that, although the work of charities was welcome, it was “completely unacceptable” that thousands of people were having to sleep rough in a rich country.

“Rough sleeping will not end unless issues with the benefits system are sorted out,” he said. “Universal Credit should be helping people to escape homelessness, but, instead, it is trapping people on the streets, preventing them from finding a safe place to live.”

Dr Walker agreed: “Housing-benefit levels have fallen considerably behind the actual levels of rent most private tenants are paying, and those on low incomes, who are often in work, have no way to bridge the gap. Many landlords refuse to accept tenants who are likely to be in part reliant on the Universal Credit system, which is notorious for error and delay.”

It comes after a report by the charity Crisis last year suggested that homelessness could be wiped out in a decade if the Government made a commitment to a plan to build 100,000 social homes a year (News, 15 June 2018). The plan was backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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