Britain’s homelessness problem is at crisis point this winter. How is Labour responding?

We need to ramp up our campaigning and volunteering in the dangerous months ahead.

Homelessness policy in the UK is at a critical junction – with the combination of Covid and cold weather demanding a strong response.

This week Labour shadow Secretary of State for Housing and Homeless Thangam Debbonaire MP kick-started the party’s winter campaign on the issue.

She noted that even before the crisis, rough sleeping was a ‘shameful sign of government failure’.  This winter, with many night shelters closed, rough sleeping is more desperate than ever.  She added that the Government promised to end rough sleeping for good: “It must ensure everyone has a safe, Covid-secure place to stay this winter.”

Labour’s campaign is summed up in a petition to give everyone a Safe Place to Stay this winter, which states that ‘ten years of Tory Government means there are now twice as many people sleeping rough than in 2010’.  Covid-19 has made rough sleeping more desperate than ever, with shelters having less space because of social distancing and homeless services feeling the pinch.

The party has called on the Government to commit that no one will spend this winter on the streets, as fears mount there will be thousands fewer beds available. 

Perfect storm

Research by charity HomelessLink found one third of homeless organisations and local authorities expect to see a decrease in capacity this winter.

In Parliamentary debates, Thangam Debbonaire has suggested that for many rough sleepers this winter could be a struggle for survival. The combination of colder weather and a pandemic is made more stark by the fact that support for rough sleepers is only a fraction of the help given during the first lockdown, even though the weather was warmer.

The Government’s former homelessness adviser Dame Louise Casey has warned that the country is on course for a “perfect storm of awfulness” that will see rising homelessness, hungry children and poor families unable to cope unless the government rethinks its support for the most vulnerable.

Testimony from organisations offering emergency beds – usually in church halls, community centres and similar buildings – should have us all concerned. In one charity’s case, less than one third of the night shelter beds on offer last year will be available this winter – meaning around 6,500 rough sleepers risk being turned away. 

Moreover, charities are struggling with less than half the usual number of volunteers this year, reducing the help they can offer rough sleepers. Debbonaire has compiled a list of volunteering opportunities for people to help out.

Policy failure

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness, co-Chaired by Neil Coyle MP, is holding an inquiry into ‘Housing First’ as a sustainable solution to ending homelessness. Housing First is the idea that by providing a chronically homeless person with housing first, it becomes a foundation on which the other needs can be addressed, and the process of recovery can begin.

This week the APPG heard from Liverpool City Region’s Metro Mayor Steve Rotherham who outlined the rough sleeping situation in the City. The region is running a ‘Safe Home’ campaign, calling for everyone homeless as a result of fleeing domestic abuse to have access to a safe, secure home.

Elsewhere, Labour Councillor Helen Dennis from Southwark Council was among 141 charities, legal and local authority signatories of a letter to Priti Patel criticising a new Home Office policy that will see foreign rough sleepers deported from the UK. 

Changes to the Immigration Rules that came into force last Tuesday made rough sleeping grounds for removal for non-UK nationals. Dennis said it was “inhumane and morally wrong” to deport someone “simply for falling on hard times and losing their home”.

Next week, following the release of the homelessness death statistics from the Office for National Statistics on 14 December, and in memory of those who lost their lives whilst homeless, Shelter will be facilitating an online candlelit vigil.

This is a problem that needs a combination of policy change – as well as ramping up our campaigning and volunteering in the dangerous months ahead.

James will be taking part Shelter’s Big Walk in support of its campaigning and night shelters. You can donate here.

James Sheward is a commentator for progressive publications including the Fabian Review.

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