Boris’ pledge to tackle rough sleeping is a failure which gets worse each year

The mayor needs to ask himself whether yearly rises in the number of people living on the streets is a legacy he is happy to continue ignoring.

The mayor needs to ask himself whether yearly rises in the number of people living on the streets is a legacy he is happy to continue ignoring

In 2008 Boris Johnson signed up to the target to end rough sleeping in London by the London Olympics in 2012. Since then, the number of people sleeping rough in London has increased every single year.

In 2013/14, 3,473 more people slept rough in London than in the year Boris was elected mayor. This is nothing short of a national scandal.

Since the firm target to end rough sleeping by 2012 was missed, the impetus seems to have seeped away from the mayor’s drive to tackle the problem.

Rising rough sleeping must not be ignored. If the number of people sleeping rough on our streets is increasing, Boris should be doing more not less to tackle that. Turning away, ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away is the antithesis of what we need.

Despite the rising numbers, the mayor has taken some positive steps to address the problem. The No Second Night Out initiative, launched in December 2010, makes early interventions that have prevented many from spending a prolonged period living on the streets.

But, despite this, a third of people sleeping rough in London have been seen sleeping rough in previous years. No Second Night Out isn’t enough on its own – we need a real effort to deal with the root causes of homelessness in London.

We need a new target for London, with a goal that the number of people sleeping rough in London reduces every year. So that by 2020, we have established a sufficiently strong social security system, outreach network and housing market in the capital that no one genuinely has to spend a night living on the streets.

To do that we need specific and focused action to help, not ignore, rough sleepers.

We need to ensure rough sleepers can access the hostels and supported accommodation services they need. These services have been badly affected by the combined impact of removing the ring-fence on Supporting Peoples budgets and the government’s deep cuts to local authority budgets.

In March 2012 a survey found that 71 per cent of hostel funding came from Supporting People budgets, with 58 per cent of London hostels reporting cuts to their funding. It is therefore unsurprising that capacity has reduced. In 2008 there were 2,378 hostel bedspaces in London, which reduced to 2,000 by 2013.

In 2011 there were 10,604 bedspaces in second stage services (services focused on rehabilitation and resettlement), but this had fallen by over 1,000 to 9,155 by 2013.

Despite Boris’ promises, what we have seen is a drop in provision at the same time as consistent growth in need.

Crucially, when people reach these services we need to ensure that the right support is available. The most recent annual report on rough sleeping in London found that 72 per cent of rough sleepers have some form of alcohol or drug dependency or mental health support needs.

Yet, the proportion of projects in England offering specific services to those with mental health problems has fallen dramatically from around one in five in 2011 to one in 25 in 2013. Hostels are important but if they don’t have the skills to treat and support the root causes of a person’s homelessness, they are little more than a stop gap.

Most importantly, we need to make sure that there is housing for people to move into once they are ready to move out of supported services. Perhaps the most difficult goal to achieve, this is fundamentally about tackling London’s housing supply crisis and ensuring the social security safety net is genuinely supporting people.

Many homelessness charities are reporting huge problems finding onward accommodation for people after homelessness services because private rented accommodation is unaffordable, particularly following cuts to housing benefit, and because welfare reform has deterred landlords from letting to benefit claimants.

In 2012 the Department for Work and Pensions found that a third of private landlords had either decided to no longer let to housing benefit claimants or were seriously considering no longer letting to them because of welfare reform.

Furthermore, research by Crisis found that only 0.9 per cent of house shares in the London Borough of Lewisham were accessible to people receiving housing benefit because they were either unaffordable under the new caps or the landlord or letting agent would not rent to benefit claimants.

The impact of this has been that many people who are now ready to move out of homelessness services are stuck in these services while people who need them are unable to access services that are full.

Every person living on our streets is a personal tragedy and a failure of the system which is meant to protect them, particularly the most vulnerable.

Boris Johnson’s pledge to tackle rough sleeping could have been a crowning achievement; instead it is a failure which gets worse each year. Instead of turning away from the problem, the mayor needs to ask himself whether yearly rises in the number of people living on the streets is a legacy he is happy to continue ignoring.

Tom Copley is a Labour Londonwide Assembly Member and the Labour Group Housing Spokesperson. Follow him on Twitter

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