One of the most groundbreaking developments in an already atypical year occurred during the early stages of the pandemic. The rising number of people forced to sleep on the streets in Britain had long been ignored, leading to hundreds of deaths a year – but, with the onset of Covid-19, the government chose to house them in a shockingly swift period of time. It was a move that one recipient described as something out of a storybook.
The Everyone In scheme was aimed at housing all rough sleepers in England, and the government pledged £3.2 million to local authorities in order to make it happen. In the letter housing minister Robert Jenrick wrote to local English authorities, he requested that they house all people sleeping rough by the weekend – a remarkable turnaround after years of inaction.
This resulted in thousands of rough sleepers being put into temporary accommodation across the country. Unfortunately, housing rough sleepers for a short period of time does not eliminate homelessness. When the scheme was quietly scrapped, it led to many ending up back on the street, where they will be joined by people who are experiencing homelessness for the first time due to rising unemployment and illegal rent evictions.
What recent months make glaringly obvious, however, is that the government could end homelessness if it wanted to. And not only our current government. When Robert Jenrick announced the winter fund, a £12 million package to help rough sleepers off the street, it was criticised by the shadow housing secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, for being less than the £13 million fund available last year. This focus on a difference of one million illustrates the limited ambitions across the aisles in Westminster on this issue.
Every single government in my lifetime has had the power to completely eradicate homelessness. Governments led by Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May and our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Since the age of the British Empire, this has always been one of the world’s wealthiest countries. We have always been able to afford to build enough homes for everyone and to provide shelter for rough sleepers. This is the first time in recent history, however, that a government was forced to show it – and it only happened because of a global pandemic.
When we refer to homelessness we don’t just mean the four or five thousand people sleeping rough on the street every night. In 2018, at least 320,000 people were reported to be homeless by Shelter and the number is rising rapidly every year. Shelter defines homelessness not just as people who are on the street, but those who are lacking regular accommodation and forced to stay in B&Bs and hostels, or with friends and family. These people are often referred to as the “hidden homelessness,” and left out of the official stats.
According to a report by the charity, Crisis, the cost of ending homelessness would be £10 billion and could be achieved over a period of 10 years. To put this in perspective, the government’s farcical and failing test and trace system cost £12 billion. The HS2 project was allocated £56 billion in 2015 and it would cost £205 billion to replace Trident. The cost of eliminating homelessness could certainly be managed. So, why has no government attempted it?
Although the number of homeless people has soared in the past decade thanks to austerity, thousands of people were certainly homeless under the last Labour government and the Conservative governments before that. In 1999, Tony Blair declared he wanted to put an end to the “scandal” of homelessness and no one can deny that by the end of that Labour government the situation was not as critical as it is now.
But this does not mean though that thousands were not homeless under New Labour – or that the government was not deeply flawed in its attitude to housing. According to a report made by Shelter in 2004, nearly 100,000 families were thought to be homeless. This is much less than the current figures but it is also double the amount of homeless families registered when New Labour first came into power in 1997.
Homelessness has become something that seems inevitable in Britain and attempts to eliminate even part of it are often met with ridicule. But this year, we’ve seen that rough sleeping can be eliminated in less than a week. It is not unavoidable that people are living on the streets or without stable housing in one of the richest countries on Earth. It is a political choice.
The letter Jenrick wrote to homeless managers and rough sleeping co-ordinators across England back in March said: “These are unusual times so I’m asking for an unusual effort.” Isn’t it worth making such an effort less unusual? This year, the government proved that if we did homelessness could be ended – and that should forever change the debate in this country.