Mick Whitley: Homelessness is the product of a broken system

We need an ambitious house building programme on a scale similar to that of the post-war years, writes Mick Whitley MP.

The scale of homelessness crisis was starkly illustrated this month by the news that 778 homeless people died in 2019. This was a 7% increase on the year before and the highest number recorded since the Office of National Statistics began to monitor cases in 2013.

Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy. Prior to the pandemic, I was a regular volunteer at Charles Thompson’s mission in my constituency of Birkenhead. Every Sunday, I helped serve hot breakfasts to homeless people from across Wirral and came to know many of them well. I can’t help but think that some of the people I came to know on those Sunday mornings may have been amongst those who lost their lives.

Now, as the darkest day of the year passes, and temperatures set to plummet, we find ourselves once again discussing support for homeless people at Christmas.

Funding has dried up

Things don’t need to be this way. When the pandemic first struck, local authorities and charities leapt into action to ensure that no one spent lockdown on the streets as part of the ‘Everyone In’ scheme. Thanks to their tireless efforts, more than 90% of rough sleepers were offered sheltered accommodation and countless lives were saved. But the government shamefully allowed funding to dry up and rough sleepers were once again shipped out onto the streets.

Now, the housing charity Crisis estimates that 200,000 families will be homeless this Christmas. This includes rough sleepers freezing on the streets or staying in hostels, but also scores of “hidden homeless” living in squats, often unsafe and unsanitary B&Bs, or couch surfing with friends and families.

Over 135,000 homeless children will spend the holidays in insecure temporary accommodation. And over 170 years since Charles Dickens highlighted poverty and injustice in his classic The Christmas Carol, UNICEF is stepping in and feeding hungry children in the UK for the first time since its inception. This is a scale of deprivation that would have been familiar to the great author himself. It is a shameful stain on our country.

The challenge

The government must provide local authorities with the resources they need to place every rough sleeper in appropriate accommodation. Reopening night shelters isn’t good enough. The threat of infection is simply too high. No one should be forced to choose between spending a night freezing on the streets or potentially jeopardising their health in communal accommodation.

This must be part of a wider package of financial support for local government. This year, local authorities across the country were forced to tear up their spending plans to support those affected by Covid-19. Council debt currently held by the Public Works Loans Board has to be written off and at least an additional £8.7 billion in core funding introduced over the next financial year.

Extend ban on evictions

The ban on evictions must be extended until we have won the war on Covid. Even then, we need an extensive programme of rent forgiveness if we are to stop an epidemic of evictions in the spring. I have also urged the Government to remove the benefit cap, end the freeze on Local Housing Allowance, and strengthen financial support for those at risk of homelessness.

Housing support must be there for all who need it – regardless of nationality or immigration status. Instead of targeting homeless migrants and refugees for deportation, the government should roll back the punitive policy of No Recourse to Public Funds. For far too long, this failed system has stopped people seeking help when they’ve desperately needed it.

For far too long, successive governments have also failed to address the pressing need to build secure and affordable housing. There are over 1.2 million people on the waiting list for social housing, but a mere 5000 new homes were built last year. This has left millions of people in precarious housing situations, paying sky-high rents that spiral ever upwards while wages spiral down. Today, almost half of private renters are just one pay cheque away from homelessness.

Ambition to match the needs of the country

We need an ambitious house building programme on a scale similar to that of the post-war years to finally end the national scandal of homelessness and the shameful shortage of decent homes. We also need to end the disastrous right-to-buy programme, which for decades has prevented local authorities from building much-needed council houses.

Our ambition should match the needs of our country. Our reward will be more stable and prosperous communities. Our reward will be children spending next Christmas and every Christmas to come in warm, secure, and happy homes. And finally, our reward will be an end to the tragedy of human beings living their lives on the street and taking their shelter beneath cardboard boxes at the coldest time of year.

Mick Whitley is the Labour MP for Birkenhead.

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