With all that’s happened since last November some of the basic issues seem to get lost. But recently, the Cinderella issue of homelessness has resurfaced. What struck me was a report that, following the closure of the Warming Room homeless shelter in Peterborough, a lady – grandmother and retired social worker in her 60s – bought a 4 bedroomed house to give a home to 4 homeless people living in a local ‘tent city’.
Although Government claims to have cut ‘rough sleeping’ by 9% nationally in the last 12 months, after seeing it increase by 143% since 2010, this amazing generosity of spirit illustrates the scale of homelessness and what could be done. Acts of charity like those of the lady from Peterborough are wonderful examples of the kindness and social responsibility which still exist but they aren’t sufficient to tackle what the homelessness charity Crisis aptly calls a national crisis!
Rough sleeping is the tip of the homelessness iceberg although its not difficult or costly to solve. Research for Crisis carried out almost 5 years ago showed that resolving rough sleeping quickly costs the public purse £1426 per person while allowing it to persist for 12 months costs £20128 per person. For Cherwell, with 11 people officially sleeping rough (surely an underestimate?), the public cost of solving the problem quickly would have been almost £16,000. Leaving it for 12 months costs over £220,000 and almost £450000 if allowed to persist for 2 years. And these are at 2015 prices!.
And people sleeping rough ‘on the street’ is not the whole story! Those living in makeshift tents, squats or disused buildings, termed ‘quasi-rough’, don’t even make the official estimates since they have a ‘roof’ over their heads! Add in 85000 families (over 200,000 people including children) living in temporary accommodation – many in unsuitable bed and breakfast – not to mention the hidden homeless of boomerang children and sofa surfers and the numbers escalate rapidly. In the last 10 years, another 700000 adults aged 20-34 now live with parents because they can’t find or afford suitable accommodation. 3.7 million people live in such ‘concealed’ households who would prefer to live separately including over 300000 lone parent/couple family groups.
This phenomenon happens in Bicester in particular and Cherwell in general. Local authority social housing has virtually disappeared and social landlord ‘housing affordability’ or ‘financial capability assessments’ are making it very difficult for homeless households to access tenancies. And even when they can afford something in the private rented sector, the quality of accommodation can be found wanting.
Councils used to provided good quality social housing which families could afford. Selling off its entire stock has crippled Cherwell’s ability to tackle the crisis locally. Of 1M households in England on council waiting lists 1200 are on Cherwell’s list. That’s around 3600 people and those are only those qualifying to be included, about 40% of likely demand from national figures. So there could be at least 3000 households, (over 10000 people) in Cherwell in need of truly affordable housing.
The answers are simple and well known from experience in other countries and our own history. Many cities and towns operate landlord licencing to enforce accommodation standards and ensure families are not exploited. In other countries rents are controlled to ensure they are truly ‘affordable’ and tenancies are long term not short term as in the UK and, most importantly, local councils build, operate and maintain social housing on a scale which the UK pioneered but largely abandoned since the 1980s ‘sell off’.