At the beginning of the year, I co-wrote a defence of Rishi Sunak when Twitter unfairly pilloried him for seeing a homeless person as a three-dimensional human being, complete with a past, skills and ambitions. It was a nauseating experience. A bit like finding yourself humming along to a Take That tune. Still, I believed he deserved a fair shake. It didn’t take long for him to remind me of his incompetence and cruelty though.
Homelessness charities warned this week that rises in energy bills and underfunded council contracts threatened their very existence, which risked returning homeless people to a cycle of sofa-surfing and rough sleeping. There are around 271,000 homeless people in England, and that number is set to rise as the cost of living continues to grow. One charity told the Guardian that its annual gas and electricity bills could rise by £500,000 from May. It is asking the government to raise its funding in line with inflation. At the moment, it doesn’t look like the government will oblige.
Sunak needs to step up here, but it’s unlikely he will. He says he wants to tackle inflation and cut spending, so addressing this crisis appears to be out of the question.
At the beginning of the pandemic the government had an epiphany: that housing rough sleepers eliminates rough sleeping, so it introduced the Everyone In policy and brought tens of thousands of people in off the street. After lockdowns ended and public scrutiny lapsed, the programme was quietly dropped, homelessness returned to pre-pandemic levels, and charities have been left to pick up the slack where they can.
These charities that are at risk are not the final answer to solving homelessness, nor any other social issue, for that matter. But charitable relief is better than no relief. If it weren’t for charity, the homeless death statistics would be far more harrowing than they already are. This is because third-sector organisations handle the vast bulk of emergency housing provision, outreach and other services that homeless people depend on. The fact that many charities say they won’t be able to function any more is terrifying.
And if the inevitable tragedies that will play out in our communities are not enough to rein in the government’s penurious instincts, Sunak should think about the economic sense that ending homelessness makes, as well as the moral case for it.
A recent report by Crisis showed that if you were to take 40,000 people out of homelessness for a year, public spending would be relieved by approximately £370m – that’s more money for schools and hospitals.
Letting homeless services disappear, meanwhile, will just create more homelessness, putting greater pressure on health, emergency and public services. We will all feel this pain.
Once, as a child, I asked my grandma who the Conservatives were, after seeing their placards up around town. “They give to the rich and take from the poor,” she said, like inverted Robin Hoods. When I got older, I thought I’d have a more sophisticated understanding of the Conservative party. It turns out that no matter how much verbiage you dress Conservatism in, my grandma summed it up perfectly.
We must realise that our only hope is to send the Tories packing at the next election, and ensure their replacements are committed to tackling inequality and poverty by reinvesting in public services, and sending the taxman to London SW1 for a change. We cannot leave the problem of homelessness to charity, or the whims of ever-changing – yet oddly similar – Tory leaders.
Daniel Lavelle writes on mental health, homelessness and social care and is the author of Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis