Homelessness: the silent crisis the next government cannot ignore

Next week, the UK will choose its next government and its next prime minister. Understandably the national focus is firmly placed on the race to occupy 10 Downing Street. Yet for hundreds of thousands of people across the UK, homelessness is the true occupancy crisis. In England alone, well over 300,000 people are without a home – equivalent to the population of Milton Keynes. The next government must prioritise solving the homelessness crisis if we are to build a successful, prosperous Britain.

For a G7 country, the scale and longevity of the UK’s homelessness crisis is completely unacceptable. The latest government data shows that in England nearly 45,000 households were homeless at the end of 2023, with an additional 16,400 households in Scotland, 6,500 in Wales and 4,200 in Northern Ireland. While there are no centralised homelessness figures for the UK, this suggests that upward of 72,000 households across the country are without a home.

It is too easy to think of homelessness purely as a numbers problem, but every person without a home is a person denied the opportunity to participate and thrive in our society. Leading youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, says that nearly 136,000 young people, aged 16-24, are homeless or at risk of homelessness. That is 136,000 people embarking on their adult lives without the stability and support that they need to reach their full potential.

Instead, they become trapped in a societal limbo. Without a permanent address they cannot set up a bank account, without a bank account they cannot receive benefits, and without proof of residence they may be ineligible for housing support. This is compounded by a disrupted education and the near impossibility of finding stable employment, which could affect them for the rest of their lives.

But this is not an unsolvable crisis, there are three key things that the next Government can do to really make an impact.

Firstly, while an initial instinct for the Government might be to launch a new homelessness task force, the reality is that this would only complicate matters – introducing another voice to the conversation rather than contributing to the solution. Instead, we need the Government to direct resources and support to the charities and organisations that already tackle homelessness every day.

From Shelter and Depaul to Crisis and Centrepoint, the experts needed to solve homelessness are already right where we need them – they simply need more resources to expand and accelerate their crucial programmes. To drive more support, the Government should appoint a Charities Czar, responsible for directing targeted support to the organisations already making a difference and ensuring that funding achieves the greatest possible impact.

Secondly, we need to completely rethink the planning process to break down the barriers that are preventing the development of emergency housing and homelessness shelters. While a wider review of planning processes is sorely needed in the UK, any changes need to include specific provision to prioritise and incentivise the development of emergency housing. For example, ensuring that housing like that of Centrepoint’s Independent Living Programme is included under Section 106 planning laws would provide a major boost. We must make it easier for charities to provide support that helps people off the streets for good.

Finally, we must begin to make housing more affordable and more accessible. Crucially, the next Government must tackle the critical housing shortfall in the UK, which stands at more than 4.3 million homes. Real energy must be placed into building new homes, including starter and build to rent properties, alongside relaxing planning and change of use policies to make it easier to convert unused office buildings into homes. Without real action on housing, we cannot solve this crisis.

The upcoming election represents a moment for the UK to take the necessary decisions to end homelessness once and for all. We cannot afford to view homelessness as an issue for individuals but instead as a moral challenge for our society and for our politicians.

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