Homelessness Is Not Inevitable – It Is a Political Choice

New statistics show that youth homelessness increased 40% in the past five years – but the increase is not inevitable: it's directly attributable to government policies.

Charity Centrepoint has reported a 40% rise in youth homelessness in the last five years. Credit: coldsnowstorm / Getty Images

Covid threw the vast inequalities that have long affected Britain into new light. Before then, though, many already lived in poor conditions—particularly those conditions facing the young and vulnerable. Youth homelessness, for example, was already on the rise.

Today, youth homelessness is still growing. In the last five years alone, the number of young experiencing or at risk of homelessness has risen by 40 percent, according to a warning last week from homelessness charity Centrepoint.

Back in 2017/18, it was estimated that around 84,000 young people across England had approached their local authority due to being homeless or at risk of homelessness. The same number in 2019/20 was 121,000. Rough sleeping more generally hit a record high in London last year: a count found 11,018 sleeping on the capital’s streets, almost double the figure counted a decade ago.

As with Covid, not everyone is equally affected. England has a black population of just 3.5 percent, but black people make up ten percent of those at risk of homelessness or already subject to it.

Britain’s catastrophic homelessness problem persists despite recent government stats that show over 268,385 homes in England sitting empty long-term. In the capital alone, approximately 22,000 homes are quietly gathering dust.

Despite what some would have us believe about the dog-eat-dog nature of humanity, homelessness, including youth homelessness, is not an inevitability. If our government wanted to end homelessness, it could, particularly in a country as rich as Britain: its continued prevalence is a political choice made by those who benefit most from a system of vast inequality.

As with so much, this reality was made clear last year, when the risk of soaring pandemic death rates forced the Conservative government to facilitate its ‘Everyone In’ scheme. Some 37,000 people experiencing homelessness were given emergency accommodation, including in newly abandoned hotels—but the plug was pulled on that scheme in less than a year, and charities have pointed out since that less than one in four of those housed as part of the scheme had moved into permanent accommodation by August 2021.

In Wednesday’s Budget, Rishi Sunak announced a spending commitment £640 million per year to ‘tackle rough sleeping and homelessness’. According to Inside Housing, however, that figure appears to be less than the £750 million the government claims to have spent on tackling homelessness this year alone.

Rather than pursue clear and concrete measures to fight the problems that cause homelessness, including a drastic housing crisis, this government instead allows anachronistic notions of punishment that ‘deter’ people from sleeping on the street.

The Vagrancy Act, which was introduced in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars to make it easier to clear the streets of returning ex-soldiers, was still being used to prosecute more than ten people a week in May this year. Boris Johnson has more recently committed to scrapping the law, but has not set a timeline. Last winter, the Tories also floated plans to make it easier to deport homeless foreign nationals—another non-solution to the real problem.

Even were the Vagrancy Act to be repealed, though, the assault would not end. The rise of anti-homeless architecture across cities in Britain—slanted and curved benches, barred corners, rocky pavements, and street spikes—is proof of a growing and open hostility on the part of the wealthiest towards those most in need. The ruling class is happy to let the problem grow worse—for example, through cuts to Universal Credit, which have put 100,000 renters at risk of eviction—as long as they don’t have to see it with their own eyes.

The effect of the recent Universal Credit cut on renters is proof of the intimate connection between rising homelessness and our ongoing housing crisis, exacerbated by the unchecked power of landlords. Our fight against homelessness is tied up with our fight against the exploitations of landlordism, including those landlords who govern us and make our laws. It is also tied up with our fight against efforts by wealthy developers who seek to gentrify and commodify historically and predominantly black and Asian areas, including London’s Brixton and Brick Lane.

Landlords and developers see homes and the areas in which they exist not as hubs of family and community, but as an opportunity to turn a profit. Homelessness is predictable in a society which allows itself to be sucked into that myth: not until we recognise housing as a universal right, along with the air we breathe and the food we eat, will we be able to build a society of which we can be proud.

If anything is clear from this growing crisis and its unbalanced impact, it’s that we live in a system where power and wealth is hoarded in the hands of the few, who intentionally and ideologically deprive others of what they need to live decent lives. Boris Johnson and his colleagues have huge resources at their disposal, but the one thing they continue to lack is compassion. Solving homelessness is possible—it’s just not part of their plan.