Homelessness is a problem we could solve

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Walking around London, you see the rise in homelessness. The 4,068 rough sleepers counted on London’s streets between last July and September was a quarterly record outside a pandemic, reports the Combined Homelessness and Information Network. And rough sleeping is only the most visible form of homelessness. Most homeless people are sofa-surfing, living in temporary accommodation, or sleeping on night buses. The charity Shelter estimates that one in 51 people in London is homeless. The US, too, has record homelessness.

I asked homeless people and charities: why do people become homeless? How should passers-by respond to them? And how could we fix homelessness? Because it’s doable. Even today, when Shelter says that at least 309,000 people in England are homeless, that’s still a manageable 0.6 per cent of the population.

It’s a myth that most homelessness is due to addiction, says Alicia Walker of the Centrepoint charity. More typically, it’s the other way around: homeless people develop addictions to numb the horror of their situation.

Homelessness usually stems from an unsafe home. People flee family breakdowns, domestic violence or addicted parents. Others, raised in care, never had safe homes. The asylum-seekers living on British streets left unsafe home countries. These stories have endless variants. One formerly homeless person I met, John, fled home as a teenager after constant conflicts with his strict immigrant parents. He’s still trying to forgive them: “I haven’t got there, not quite yet.”

People failed by their parents often struggle to trust anybody afterwards. The homeless are “terrified children . . . let down by the adult world”, says John Bird, founder of The Big Issue magazine, in Lorna Tucker’s new documentary about the problem, Someone’s Daughter, Someone’s Son. Those of us raised in safe homes, which we left when we were ready, should be slow to blame people whose earliest memories are of Daddy battering Mummy.

Now homelessness is rising because of Britain’s broader housing crisis. Some families, struggling with rising costs, kick out teenage children. The same housing crunch reduces the availability of friends’ sofas. Britain’s “austerity” policy of the 2010s was an experiment in scrapping support for the vulnerable. The results are now in. There’s little social housing or mental-health treatment for homeless people. Underfunded local councils seldom help. The government seems unbothered. Despite its 2024 target to end rough sleeping, it has no discernible strategy for homelessness, says Walker. There have been 16 housing ministers since 2010.

On the streets, exposed to cold and rain, people barely sleep for fear of being urinated on, having their stuff stolen or, especially if female, sexually assaulted. One homeless man in Tucker’s film says: “If I’m lucky, I sleep eight hours a week.” Many pick up addictions in shelters packed with addicts. Homeless people’s mean age of death is about 45. One young man, Darcy, says homelessness “made me be responsible when I should have been a child”. How does he make sense of his experiences? “I don’t think I will ever do.”

How should passers-by respond? Formerly homeless people told me that whether you give someone money or not, you should say hello, acknowledge the person. One awful thing about homelessness is being ignored. The rest of us get acknowledged constantly, at work, in shops, at home. Homeless people can feel invisible, beneath contempt. John sometimes stops to tell someone, “It’s not for ever. Better days are coming.”

Tucker herself was “street homeless” until she was arrested trying to throw herself off Waterloo Bridge, and a friendly hospital worker set her on the long road to recovery. She says, “We can all save someone’s life by being kind.”

How to reduce homelessness? The frustrating thing is that we know what works. Statutory homelessness fell 69 per cent from 2003 to 2010, largely because the Labour government prioritised an unpopular issue. The solution: build social housing, while providing treatment and counselling to help people recover.

Prevention is better. We could plug the holes in the safety net, such as the point of exit from care or prison, when many become homeless. That would reduce the fortunes we’re spending on temporary housing, emergency healthcare, addiction treatment and prison, which all serve to keep people “just not homeless”. Tucker marvels at how much she cost society during nearly 20 years of addiction. Bird asks: “Why do we put an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, not a fence at the top?”

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