On the 13th August, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire unveiled his department’s Rough Sleeping Strategy, reiterating the government’s commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and to end it completely by 2027. While the headline figure of £100m has somewhat unravelled in the past 24 hours, with Brokenshire forced to admit that half of the money had already been committed to tackling homelessness and no new funds have been invested from outside his department’s existing budgets, the intention to act demonstrated by the announcement has been welcomed by homelessness charities. Housing and homelessness organisations that are part of the government’s Rough Sleeping Advisory Group (including Crisis, Homeless Link, Shelter and others) released a joint statement yesterday praising in particular ‘the new funding commitment for dedicated outreach teams and for emergency bed spaces’, observing that these measures will ‘make a real difference to people’s lives’. However, these organisations were clear that they regarded this announcement as just the start of the battle against homelessness, calling for ‘bold, cross-departmental plans to tackle the root causes of all forms of homelessness, and prevent it from happening in the first place’. The CEOs of Shelter, Crisis and St Basils appeared separately on the BBC News following the announcement, and all similarly called for a holistic strategy that focused on prevention, specifically the provision of more social housing and what Jean Templeton of St Basils referred to as a ‘national housing strategy’.
This focus on prevention and on the wider problem of homelessness outside the headline issue of rough sleeping (referred to by Local Government Association chairman Lord Porter as ‘only the tip of the iceberg’ of the homelessness crisis) reflects the recent direction of thought within the homelessness sector. Government figures demonstrate that a total of 123,130 children were housed in temporary accommodation in England in the first quarter of 2018. Even more people affected by homelessness make up the so-called ‘hidden homeless’, those who have not approached or received help from local authorities: including those staying in over-crowded housing. often characterised by people ‘couch-surfing’ at friends’ or relatives’. This form of homelessness particularly affects young people, who are disproportionately likely to be homeless anyway. Indeed, as a youth-focused organisation, the Future Melting Pot would draw attention to the fact, highlighted by charity Homeless Link, that roughly half of the individuals who access homelessness services in England are young people between the ages of 18-24.
While organisations such as Shelter and Crisis continue to attempt to change the narrative around the homeless and highlight the huge number of people in the country affected by homelessness (with Shelter estimating last year that 1 in every 200 people in the UK were homeless), some of the reporting of the government’s plan has perhaps been somewhat irresponsible, and inadvertently strengthened existing stereotypes around what kind of people face homelessness. For example, the government has pledged £30m to provide targeted support to rough sleepers facing mental health difficulties relating to substance misuse, with Brokenshire highlighting the illegal drug Spice as a particular cause for concern in an interview with The Times. In both The Times, the BBC News and the Guardian it has been reported that ‘researchers estimate between 90-95% of homeless people in Manchester smoke the drug (Spice)’. The BBC quotes Julie Boyle of the charity LifeShare as believing that ‘between 95% and 98% [of her clients] are smoking Spice in some form’. Boyle also observed that ‘It’s very, very unusual to find a young person who’s homeless in city centre Manchester who isn’t taking Spice’. LifeShare’s work with these highly vulnerable people is vital, and there is no doubt that they save many lives.
The Spice epidemic is clearly a vital and pressing issue, and the government is absolutely right to invest in mental health services to help homeless people break their addiction to this dangerous and potentially fatal drug. However, there is a danger that the media’s use of statistics such as ’90-95% of homeless people in Manchester smoke the drug’ misleads the public. Firstly, this phrase falls into the trap of equating rough-sleepers with all homeless people, when it is widely acknowledged that rough sleepers form only a small minority of the total homeless population (with figures from Shelter from April last year suggesting that rough sleepers made up just 4,500 of a wider homeless population of over 300,000 in Britain). Secondly, it plays into stereotypes about homeless people as being overwhelmingly drug addicts. While addiction is a huge issue among the UK’s homelessness population, it is just one of very many factors that contribute to people experiencing homelessness. Public understanding of homeless people would improve if media outlets were careful to use the correct language when referring to homeless people in different situations. Not only would this reduce stereotyping and the ‘othering’ of the homeless, it would also raise awareness of the fact that the homelessness crisis affects a far wider section of the population than perhaps most people think. This could only generate momentum around the efforts of charities such as Shelter and Crisis to lobby for wider strategies to tackle the root causes of homelessness for a sustainable solution to this national crisis.
Photo Credit: National Audit Office