"For the first time in 40 years we have a real chance to change things"

The homelessness reduction bill has the potential to make a real difference, MPs must back it

By Matt Downie

If you became homeless, who would help you? This might seem like an abstract question, but for thousands of people across England the answer comes as a horrible shock.

You split up with your partner, you get injured or sick, you lose your job. The bills rack up. The rent gets paid later and later until eventually you are evicted. Successive governments have failed to build enough houses in your area so, alongside cuts to housing benefit, even grotty one-bed flats are unaffordable as rents soar.

You wear out your welcome on the sofas of family and friends until, with nowhere left to turn, you go to the Housing Office in your local council, desperate and homeless with nowhere to sleep that night. But instead of being helped you are turned away to sleep on the street. Where the average age of death for a homeless person is just 47. Where you are 13 times more likely to be a victim of violence. Where you are nine times more likely to take your own life.

That's because in England if you don't have dependent children or you can't prove that you are particularly vulnerable then your local authority has no legal obligation to offer you meaningful help when you come to them as homeless. The law has meant that people have been turned away since the original Homeless Persons Act was passed back in 1977.

But for the first time in 40 years we have a real chance to change things. Because today, a private member's bill by Bob Blackman MP – called the homelessness reduction bill – will receive its Second Reading in the House of Commons. If passed, it will give councils a duty to give people meaningful support to resolve their homelessness, and it will introduce measures to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place.

The homelessness reduction bill cannot be passed soon enough. Homelessness is rising. In 2015 on any one night across the country 3,569 people slept rough. That is over double the number counted in 2010. A staggering 100,000 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance in 2015/16 – an 11 per cent rise in five years.

It is true that private members' bills often fail. We need only look back to the Turing Bill being talked out last week to see how difficult it can be to change the statute book this way. But the homelessness reduction bill is a bit different.

As a member of the cross-party Communities and Local Government Select Committee, Bob Blackman took the opportunity of being picked in the private members' bill ballot to tie the bill into the committee’s recent report on homelessness. The committee even conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the bill and it was revised in response to the recommendations.

Earlier this week the government confirmed that it would back the bill. A huge step forwards. But we are not there yet. For this bill to get through today's Second Reading we need 100 MPs in attendance. Any fewer than 100, and filibustering could easily kill the bill – with or without government support.

So, if you are an MP reading this piece, I urge you to attend today's debate. You have a chance to ensure that all of your constituents are protected from the horrors of homelessness. 

Matt Downie is the director of policy and external affairs at Crisis

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