According to the latest Homelessness Monitor, a study carried out by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in conjunction with the Universities of York and Herriot watt, homelessness in England has steadily been rising over the last five years.

Figures by the study indicate that in the year 2013/2014 280,000 people were affected by and sought assistance for issues relating to homelessness, up 9% from the previous year.

The research in the study argues that official figures released by the Government are misleading and masking the true scale of the problem. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, the figure fell by 3% with only 52,000 people classed as homeless last year.

Homelessness doesn’t just mean sleeping rough on the streets. Granted, whilst this does make up a significant proportion of official figures; with the Department for Communities & Local Government estimating that in 2014, there were roughly 2400 people sleeping rough on any one night of the year,the problem with determining the exact number people lies in the fact that so many homeless people, naturally, seek out other avenues to prevent sleeping on the streets.

Thousands of people try to find accommodation in shelters, or hostels which is becoming harder due to the lack of available rooms. Thousands more are known as the ‘hidden homeless’ who live long term in B&B’s or couch surf amongst friends and family. Because of this, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint an exact figure, but the Homelessness Monitor suggests evidence points to roughly 1 in 10 adults having experienced homelessness during the last five years.

The discrepancies between official figures and those released by the study and other homeless charities lies in the fact that government statistics  don’t take into account the prevention and relief cases, where people had sought help from their council to tackle the problems they faced before they become homeless. As more and more people are faced with debt problems, councils are reporting an increase of the number of instances they have offered financial assistance and debt advice. Individuals are also turning to their local housing services for help when they lose their previously privately rented homes.

The study highlights that benefit cuts, changes to housing benefits and rises in council tax make it difficult for people to find suitable accommodation. In addition to rising rents, this has created a scenario in which increasingly more people are facing severe hardships. However the Government refutes the fact that welfare reforms (read; cuts) are having an impact on rates of homelessness.

Young people are disproportionately the most affected. 8% of 16-24 year olds report to have been recently homeless, with the figure more than doubling over the last three years alone.

The study assesses the state of homelessness across the entire country; however they found that the highest rise was in London in particular, where the figure rose by 12% from the previous year. The severe shortage of new affordable housing and the cost of living in the city, in conjunction with welfare cuts, is believed to be a large contributing factor to the rise in the number of people being forced out of their homes and local areas.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says;

“If we are to prevent a deepening crisis, we must look to secure alternatives to home ownership for those who cannot afford to buy – longer-term, secure accommodation at prices that those on the lowest incomes can afford.”

Sanctions; imposed by the government against benefits claimants for missing appointments or breaching the rules under which they are entitled to receive benefits have also contributed to the significant rise.

Aside from the common causes of homelessness such as poverty, unemployment and welfare reform, drug and alcohol abuse makes up two thirds of the cases reported over the last five years. 37% are people who have no formal education or professional qualifications, and a quarter are cases of people who have been in care or prison. Migrants also make up almost a third of all rough sleepers in London, simply because they don’t have the same support network or understanding of the benefits system that nationals may do.

Being homeless increases the chance of people developing long term physical and mental health problems. The number of homeless people who visit A&E is four times higher than that of the general public, with over a quarter of those currently homeless having been admitted for some period within the last six months. All this presents a significant cost to the tax payer, who by government estimates pays £85 million a year to cover the costs. In the long term, if these health problems are left untreated, it becomes all the more difficult for people to extract themselves from their current circumstances and resolve the issues that are the cause of their problems.

Welfare reforms are impacting more than just individuals alone. Budget cuts are hitting charities and other homelessness services. Hostels may be open to provide much needed beds, but they’re losing staff at a rate not seen before. They may frequently lose their mental health professionals, or careers advisers, who provide the even more vital services that will help people remove themselves from the situation they find themselves in.

The study interviewed over 300 charities and councils across the country. 90% of those councils surveyed said they predict welfare reforms will continue to influence homelessness figures, with over 50% stating that they believe the situation will only get worse before it starts to improve.

Many charities are concerned over the lack of attention the government is giving to the crisis. Whilst more than £500 million has been pledged by the current government, what is required is for governments to look further ahead than just the five years of an electoral term, for them to allocate their resources more effectively and disperse it to regions and sectors who need it most, rather than a blanket spread. As with most things, prevention is cheaper than the cure, and it would be wise for the incoming government, and for civil society itself, to pay more attention to those at-risk and vulnerable individuals in an attempt to intervene before they become homeless.


Zainab Al-Deen

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