Government housing policy has created a vast human tragedy

The Housing Bill will further inflame an already desperate situation


Content note: This article contains reference to domestic and sexual violence

I’m in the main office of a London council: open plan, bustling, fractious even. I’m there as an advocate for Donna (not her real name), waiting for an appointment with the Homeless Persons Unit here.

Donna has been released from prison that morning, she has seven black holdalls with her, containing her worldly possessions, and nowhere to sleep that night. The stakes feel pretty high. After three hours we are finally seen by a worker at a central pod, with small screens for ‘privacy’.

Questions include ‘Have you been a victim of domestic violence?’ and ‘Are you involved in or at risk of sex work?’ all asked in full view, to be overheard by whoever might be passing by.

Donna is getting understandably anxious and upset. The council housing worker is saying it’s very unlikely they’ll house her today, they’ll need to do further investigations. Donna says ‘what about my mental health? I’ve got anxiety and depression.’ Worker: ‘You’re expecting to be housing priority need because of a condition that a quarter of the population has?’

Donna repeats that she was also a victim of domestic abuse and so they have to house her as someone fleeing domestic violence. She becomes more distressed and begins to pull down her trousers to show the worker the stab wounds on her thighs from her former partner. Donna begins raising her voice.

I request to see the housing worker’s manager. I’m refused. Donna breaks down in tears, stating ‘I can’t believe this, I’m having such a bad day.’

The housing worker looks up and says ‘you’re having a bad day? YOU’RE having a bad day? No one asks me how I am or how my day is going. You’re not the only one having a bad day,’ and walks off with the application.

We are there all day. I quote all the relevant bits of legislation I can think of at the council. A colleague rings half of London to find a bed for the night, even though this council should clearly accept her application.

Donna ends up in a Travelodge for the night and has an appointment first thing the next morning with a housing charity, but nothing from the council.

I wish this was an unusual story. Everyone I know in the sector has housing nightmare stories, lots of them: homeless persons units across London stretched to breaking point, turning away the most vulnerable and the most in need of accommodation, as central government cuts and the austerity agenda rolls on.

Internal prison housing staff were always relieved when the cold weather night shelters opened – they provide much needed emergency accommodation. The situation has gotten progressively worse under the coalition and this government.

London undoubtedly has a fully-fledged housing crisis. Rough sleeping has risen by 30 per cent in the last year.

The pernicious Housing Bill looks set to make all this far worse. As yesterday’s march and the Kill the Bill campaign point out, it will destroy council housing, condemning millions to a lifetime of insecure, expensive private renting.

It seems like the opposite of what a sensible, progressive government should be doing at a time like this. This afternoon sees the first Communities and Local Government Select Committee evidence session, as part of its Homelessness Inquiry. It’ll be hearing from housing charities as to their work, the causes of homelessness and the effectiveness of work undertaken to tackle it.

Surely, while the brilliant work of organisations like St Mungo’s, Crisis and Thamesreach is consistently undermined by a government whose legislation exacerbates homelessness, their expertise is only going to be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

I recently visited a pioneering arts and health project in a wet hostel (that is, one where you can drink) in Lambeth. They have five years of funding meaning they can take a user-led, relational approach to enable a clear list of health outcomes.

Is this funded by the Department of Health, enamoured as they are with social prescribing? No, it’s funded by a large grant giving foundation and delivered by an organisation with charitable status.

It’s all too obvious too, that over-stretched, beleaguered charities are going to be the ones left to pick up the pieces of people’s lives following the reduction by £30 a week of the Employment Support Allowance and the forthcoming budget announcement on the changes to the Personal Independence Payment. Both policies will increase the risk of homelessness for those with disabilities.

Alongside ramping up the already long list of those at risk of homelessness, there is no clear plan for London’s housing crisis. Thankfully, Labour’s London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan is tackling this issue head on with a whole suite of policies to enable the u-turn on housing that is needed, so that ordinary Londoners, vulnerable Londoners, every Londoner can access the basics: food, water, shelter.

The reality is that desperate. As I walked from the tube to the shop – a two minute walk – last Thursday, I was stopped four times and asked for money. Until a few years ago, you seldom saw someone begging, I don’t think people felt it a worthwhile area to target.

There are savvy organisations working with those with multiple disadvantage, like Resolving Chaos – people who understand the complexities of homelessness. Government and local authorities would be wise to heed their work and halt this human tragedy.

James (not his real name) begs in my area. He and his partner sleep in a doorway, because they can’t find a hostel that will let them stay as a couple, together. His partner doesn’t want to be separated from him because she was raped in the last hostel she was in alone.

As a society and as those who care about equality and justice, we have to listen to experts by experience and those who work with them to provide lasting, useful answers for the Donnas, the Jameses and everyone affected by the shocking policy that is fuelling the housing crisis.

Sara Hyde is Vice Chair of Fabian Women’s Network and is a candidate in the London Assembly elections in May. Find her on Twitter @sarakhyde

Image: Debbie Humphry

6 Responses to “Government housing policy has created a vast human tragedy”

  1. NOT Fit for work

    You do know don’t you, that Thames Reach and all the housing crisis providers you name work very closely with this government? Thames Reach is merely one of the many who have taken the money provided by this government. They all believe that worklessness is a personal failing and they are all involved in the Sanctions regime in very active ways. Thames Reach actually works in the “Community Mental Health” Hub which is part of the DWP Jobcentre in Streatham. I believe that the cEO of Thamesreach is a chronic God Botherer who believes that his organisation is on a mission from god to “clean up” the homeless and the mentally ill. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

  2. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    Excellent article, explaining a truly appalling situation. The current government are utterly clueless about all of this and can’t see the wood for the trees. They just don’t really understand what life is like for many of those they were elected to “serve”.

  3. Michele Beers

    Affordable social housing has been seriously undermined for decades across the UK. This is a problem that is currently being addressed in the North despite disproportional government cuts in council funding. The current Tory government seems to adopt a machevellian view regarding the most vulnerable and financially incapacitated groups, many who live within the Capital and other cities across the UK. This social cleansing will become more apparent, especially in the heart of the capital, as the situation escalates if the resistant and unhelpful policies of the tories are revised and modified.

  4. David Davies

    There may be a `housing crisis’ in The Only Place That Matters, caused by huge amounts of property being bought up by foreign `investors’, and housing associations turfing out long-standing tenants for a fast return. Sadly, in such a dystopia, Donna’s circumstances are hardly likely to put her at the top of any list. There are far higher priorities, like a garden bridge and a replica of the Palmyra Monument, for those in control of the purse strings.

    The problem is more of distribution than availability. The BS means that many people act from a sense of entitlement, rather than need. There are loads of empty properties throughout the country, many of which are deliberately kept empty – and a significant number of which could be refurbished to living standards, if councils had not had their funding halved.

    Meaningless expressions such as `affordable’, `National Living Wage’, `the long term economic plan is working’, are allowed by a supine media to pass unchallenged . We have money for war, but not for those who actually fought for a Land Fit For Heroes. As they are economically useless, they can make do with 15 minute `Care Visits’, from people on ZHC dashing between appointments, at their own expense.

    Today, Osborne will inflict more savagery on the defenceless old and sick, in the name of austerity. Despite his claims of fiscal rectitude, his policies have incurred more debt that every labour government put together. If the `long term economic plan is working’ why does he tinker with it every 6 months – finding £4.4 billion here, losing £18 billion there?

  5. Geoff Beacon

    “Thankfully, Labour’s London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan is tackling this issue head on with a whole suite of policies to enable the u-turn on housing that is needed, so that ordinary Londoners, vulnerable Londoners, every Londoner can access the basics: food, water, shelter.”

    Are Sadiq’s policies radical enough? Isn’t it true that

    1) It is possible to create homes for about £20,000 if the land is provided just a bit more than agricultural prices (i.e. £1,000 per housing plot). Then cheap a starter homes can be delivered to the plots. (See ) Unlike Sadiq’s policies, a properly planned plotland development could happen very quickly.

    2) We are facing a real climate disaster. Traditional bricks and mortar houses (as shown in Sadiq’s “Homes for Londoners”) have such large embodied carbon that they swamp personal carbon budgets and help screw the climate. (See )

    P.S. The affluent cause much more carbon pollution than the poor. We should be taxing the affluent, the polluters, and giving to the poor, who pollute less.

    P.P.S Why do most on the left push economic growth, which the climate can’t afford ( ) rather than redistribution. We don’t need to ruin the Earth just to give to the poor.

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