The growing homeless crisis politicians don’t want to talk about
Last week, the body of 23 year-old Daniel Smith was found in a burning tent in Manchester. The same day, 32 year-old Christopher Sever was found dead in a derelict house in Hull. Two weeks before that, a 50 year-old man's body was discovered in a car park in Swindon. Three tragic deaths in the space of a fortnight, each from different causes but with one thing in common: they were all homeless.
With homelessness in the UK soaring, deaths like these will inevitably become more common. According to the charity Crisis, the average life expectancy of a homeless person is just 47 and they are 13 times more likely to be victims of violence.
Since 2010, rough sleeping in England has increased by 55% and last year saw a surge in homeless camps being set up around the country. When local councils are challenged about the camps, the stock response is usually that occupants were offered accommodation but turned it down. What they fail to say is the offer was usually just a bed in a shelter for a couple of nights rather than a permanent solution.
Many local authorities have resorted to controversial ways of trying to keep the problem out of sight. Some have sought to prosecute those found sleeping rough or begging, while others have deployed increasingly invasive tactics to keep rough sleepers off the streets – from 'anti-homeless spikes' to water hoses, to loudspeakers installed to prevent homeless people from sleeping. But, what, if anything, is actually being done to prevent or tackle the issue, rather than just attempting to keep it from view?
Homeless camps are springing up across the UK
Well, the answer is not a lot. At least, not by those who should be doing something. Of course, there are many charities working hard to provide food, shelter and support to those who need it, but they have limited resources and manpower. The only way to really tackle the problem is for politicians to step up and take action.
A London-based campaign, launched this week by a group of homeless charities, has called on the next mayor of the city to do just that. Research commissioned by the campaign suggested that 68% of Londoners are appalled by the scale of homelessness in the capital, with 72% believing the next mayor should do more to improve the situation.
The current mayor has at least paid lip-service to tackling the problem. When Boris Johnson became mayor he promised to eradicate rough sleeping in the capital by 2012. However, despite backing several initiatives, while posing for the cameras in a sleeping bag, rough sleeping has actually doubled in the last five years in London. Figures released by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network yesterday revealed that 2,862 people were found sleeping on the streets of London in the last three months of 2015 alone – an increase of 12% on the same period last year.
Video: What it's like to have been homeless in London
Johnson isn't alone in making empty promises on the issue. After coming under pressure over their record on homelessness, the Conservatives announced a package of measures to help tackle the crisis, including additional funding for services. Yet barely a month passes without charities warning that a government policy is either causing homelessness or has the potential to cause it. Problems which are exacerbated by the impact of the bedroom tax, the use of sanctions, and the benefit cap.
Labour isn't much better. Corbyn has raised the issue a number of times, but the actions of some local Labour councils have only made the situation worse. Last year, homeless people in Manchester were involved in a long-running battle with the Labour-run council in the city. It was only after months of court cases and negative press headlines that the council softened its approach and announced it would be opening empty buildings for rough sleepers over the winter. And in London, activists campaigning against the evictions of social housing tenants, often find themselves in battles with Labour councils.
Just seen this astonishing shanty town in centre of Manchester. Around 50 homeless people sheltering from cold here pic.twitter.com/Sn5vlUsJBd
— Julian Druker (@Julian5News) January 17, 2016
The causes of homelessness are complex but local authority budget cuts and the continuing housing crisis have led to a growing number of people finding themselves without a roof over their heads. If the situation is going to improve, politicians from all parties must take action. Labour councils must fight to protect society's most vulnerable people, rather than fighting against them. And if the government is serious about tackling it, it needs to look at ways to prevent homelessness in the first place. That will involve acknowledging that their own policies have contributed to the surge in homelessness that we have seen. Chucking a few extra quid at the issue just won't do it. Additional funding would be welcome, but unless the underlying causes of homelessness are tackled then it's pointless. It's a bit like me hijacking your car, but then giving you your bus fare home.
The UK is one of the richest countries in the world and yet right across the country mini refugee camps are increasingly being set up in our towns and cities. Inside each of those tents is a real person with a story to tell. These people should be listened to and supported, not just hidden from view. If our politicians don't take responsibility for the crisis, it will just get worse. And if that happens, we will only keep seeing the kind of tragic deaths we have seen in recent weeks.