THIS PIECE IS A CONTRIBUTION FROM THE TEAM AT FULFILLING LIVES LAMBETH, SOUTHWARK AND LEWISHAM.
Prior to the coronavirus epidemic, homelessness in the UK was certainly at crisis point. On any one night, approximately 4 to 5000 people were sleeping rough across the UK.
Yet, almost overnight, that number went down to zero as the British government put plans in place to house rough sleepers following the onslaught of the coronavirus epidemic. After what felt like years of stagnant progress in highlighting the plight of homeless people, almost miraculously they were given housing in emergency hostels, hotels and elsewhere.
Now, as the government contemplates the next 12 months, the fate of homeless people hangs in the balance. Luke Hall, the homelessness minister, made a call to local authorities earlier this month suggesting that rough sleepers merely “return to friends and family.” But Hall’s suggestion fails to take into account the full complexities and causes of homelessness and dangerously simplifies the problem at hand.
| BREAKDOWN IN RELATIONSHIPS LEAD TO HOMELESSNESS
Firstly, the very reason that many people are forced onto the streets is because of a breakdown in relationships with family or friends, leaving them with nowhere else to go. Sometimes, this is linked to substance use or behaviours that make it difficult for the family to live with them. One person we work with has been in a perpetual cycle of living with family, being ‘kicked out’ the family home, allowed back, kicked out, allowed back… So moving in with family or friends is simply not an option for many of those who are homeless.
Secondly, many people do not have friends and family or they are in exploitative relationships with them. We know that a high proportion of people who experience homelessness are care leavers and do not have family. Often, the relationships that people do have may not be ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ and may involve substance use and/or be exploitative. For example, a woman we work with lived with her elderly mother for a while in sheltered accommodation and stole her money. In other situations, people are in violent or abusive relationships where they are at risk of harm from the other person.
I have spent periods of my life bouncing between people’s floors and sofas…even when I was in recovery and had a baby. Having stuff everywhere and no-where, and no place that you can relax and just be, feeling like you’re imposing, in the way, or overstaying your welcome, is damaging to your sense of identity and security.
| PEOPLE NEED HOMES
Thirdly, where people might have a friend or family member they could stay with, small homes means they would be sofa-surfing, which is itself a form of homelessness. Often, family members or friends live in small council properties and do not have extra rooms or space for anyone else to live. Not having a stable address is a barrier to many things important to stability and progression such as registering with a GP, getting a bank account and finding work; it also has a negative impact on mental wellbeing. Moving people from the streets and onto sofas would be transferring them from one type of homelessness (rough sleeping) to another (sofa surfing). People need homes.
Finally, there might be vulnerable people who would be at risk of harm, for example, if there are children in the house. Two of the families of women we work with look after their children and it would not be appropriate for them to live there due to substance use. Another woman we work with was living with her mother, and when she owed a dealer money the window of the mother’s flat was smashed in, putting the mother at risk.
So, we ask Luke Hall to reconsider his request and to look more closely at the wider range of complexities and issues that lead to someone becoming homeless and why many cannot simply “return home”. Whilst we are motivated by the news that local councils will be given £105m to stop rough sleepers from returning to the streets, we need to ensure that ending homelessness is not seen through a one-size-fits-all approach. We have seen that the government can provide housing for our homeless population – now let’s start to address the issues that lead to homelessness in the first place.
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