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Wednesday 30 October 2019

Tortoise Take ∙ Opinion

Homeless alone

An end to rough sleeping? It’s already possible, but politicians are too distracted to care

By Peter Hoskin

It’s been so long since the last recession that most observers are already anticipating the next one. But what about the in-between times; that expanse of years when shops still close, people still lose their jobs, and public services are still being cut? This is the sodden territory in which you’ll find Britain’s homelessness statistics. On an average autumn night in 2010, a year after the recession, there were about 1,768 people sleeping rough in England. In 2018, almost a decade later, there were 4,677, a rise of 165 per cent.

This is a nationwide problem, although it’s more concentrated in some areas than in others. As well as being Britain’s actual capital, London is also its homelessness capital – a place where over 1,000 people were sleeping rough last autumn, 209 per cent more than in 2010. One small area in the city, Westminster, has more rough sleepers than other entire regions do. Westminster also happens to be where the nation’s politicians congregate in its parliament.

Parliamentary privilege alongside concrete suffering. It’s an intolerable juxtaposition, particularly when homeless people are dying in the Tube station where MPs disembark for work, as happened last year.

But we shouldn’t pretend that there is a swift solution for those MPs to enact. Part of the reason why the rough-sleeping total has risen in the years since the recession is that it’s a lagging indicator. It takes years for the various problems of unemployment, housing supply, drug use, service cuts and family breakdown to fully tell on the streets. And it takes years to stem this downflow, let alone to reverse it.

Even the statistics themselves are an impediment, of a kind. Homelessness is difficult to both measure and categorise. How do we truly know how many people are scattered beneath the streetlights on any given night? How many will be stuck there for months or even for years? What about the sofa surfers and hostel dwellers? These are not academic questions; they entirely change the scale and the nature of the problem, and therefore the policy responses.

Nor should we think that this is a problem faced just by London and the UK. However it’s measured, homelessness has been rising in many developed countries and cities over the past decade. Visit San Francisco, the cradle of America’s tech boom, and you cannot avoid witnessing a rough-sleeping crisis that is ten times worse than London’s – in per-capita terms, if not for its sheer awfulness.

Except there’s one city on the world map that stands out for different reasons: Helsinki, the capital of Finland, where the official number of rough sleepers is almost zero.

The main explanation for this is a policy that’s radical in its simplicity: homes for the homeless. Under the principle of “Housing First”, Finnish homeless people are provided with permanent dwellings (many of them new-builds) before being introduced to professionals who can help with everything from substance-abuse issues to getting a job. The result has been a sort of reverse-London: there were over a 1,000 rough sleepers in Finland at the time of the last recession, from a comparable total population, yet since then the number has gone down, down, down.

Of course, policies do not always travel well across seas. But there is one component of Finland’s turnaround that can be imported anywhere: “sustained political ambition,” as the authors of an EU study put it five years ago. The Finnish government introduced a programme in 2008 to halve long-term homelessness over the following three years, then another programme in 2012 to complete the job. They pre-empted the secondary disasters of the crash.

And in Britain? The country’s parliamentarians will now be looking ahead to December and the general election they’ve just voted for. Perhaps, for a couple of crazy minutes, they could instead look back at the in-between years – and what might have been achieved with some sustained political ambition.

Graphics by Chris Newell and Ella Hollowood

WDYT? We think this is an issue worth pursuing much further. If you would like to participate, have a point of view or an experience to share, please contact liz@tortoisemedia.com