"The number of people sleeping on the streets in England is now at the highest level on record"

Week in review: Homelessness won’t be solved by hiding it from sight

A Bristol tanning salon hit the headlines this week after installing a sprinkler system to deter rough sleeping outside its city centre shop. The move was widely criticised, but this is by no means the only example of a business or council trying to push rough sleepers out of a central location.

In recent years, as homelessness has become more visible, the methods used to try to keep it hidden from sight have become increasingly controversial. Metal spikes are installed on ledges outside buildings, bus stop seats are manufactured with a curve so no-one can sleep on them, benches have bars put on them to stop rough sleepers lying down.

But these are all on the mild end of the spectrum.

Last month, rough sleepers bedding down at the Stratford Centre in Newham were woken in the early hours of the morning and handed community protection notices ordering them to leave the area. In Bath, the council left notes on the tents of homeless people threatening to confiscate their belongings if they didn't move. Poole council banned people from begging for food and money or sleeping in doorways between the hours of 8am and midnight. Bournemouth council once played Alvin and the Chipmunks music through speakers during the night to stop people from sleeping around the town's Travel Interchange. The list goes on.

All these tactics achieve is to push the problem from one area to another. In my own town of Northampton, homeless people are now sleeping in tents behind bushes and in fields. But just because they are not so easily seen does not mean they are not there.

The number of people sleeping on the streets in England is now at the highest level on record. Figures show that on any given night at least 4,700 people are sleeping rough. This has increased by 132% since 2010. A recent parliamentary report identified welfare reforms, reduced investment by local authorities in homeless services, and flows of non-UK nationals who are unable to access benefits as contributing towards the increase.

The government has been warned about the growing numbers for years but has so far failed to do anything to stem the problem. We hear lots about targets to end rough sleeping by some far off date but very little about how to tackle it now.

On Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn told the Andrew Marr show that Labour would immediately purchase 8,000 properties for rough sleepers if it came to power. The party has also pledged to give local authorities the right to seize properties that had deliberately been left vacant. This a welcome move. The rough sleeping crisis won't be solved by tinkering around the edges of housing policy. It needs bold and radical action.

Vulnerable people are dying on our streets. People like 32 year-old Lindy who had been sleeping rough in a tent and was found dead in a park in Cardiff in November. Or like Steve, who was found dead last month on a derelict plot in Dudley. Or 56 year-old Fiona, found dead at the start of the year in Leeds. Or Alan who was found dead in a car park in Taunton on Boxing day.

Hounding rough sleepers out of city centres may make shoppers and tourists feel a little more comfortable while they go about their business, but it does nothing to prevent these deaths.

Natalie Bloomer is a journalist for Politics.co.uk. You can follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.