Rough Sleeping – Back to the 80’s?

If you were around in the 80’s & 90’s and earlier you’ll recall increasing numbers of people living and dying prematurely on the streets of Britain, from a complex interplay of government policy, social and economic factors. Conditions which are re-emerging at a worrying pace and threatening to plunge a new generation of people into extreme hardship.

Yes, we have funding announcements to support the ‘No second night out’ initiative which is helpful, but woefully inadequate. In my local patch a fund of over £200k has been announced but cuts of £15m to local prevention services, many of these focused on preventing homelessness, have been proposed in addition to cuts already implemented over the last year or so.

I don’t believe, back in the day, that it was a failure of housing, welfare and economic policy that forced vulnerable people on to the streets. I don’t believe either that rough sleeping, as the visible part of the homeless spectrum, was an unintended consequence of policy that could neither be predicted nor prevented.

My recollection is that only when West End theatregoers found it increasingly difficult to get into the performance of their choice because of the ‘litter’ of rough sleepers around the Strand did government act to address the visible consequences of their welfare policies. Not driven by a humanitarian perspective but forced to act from embarrassment, literally on the international stage.

At best, government remained indifferent to the sharp end of homelessness and in all likelihood did not consider themselves accountable, driven instead by a free market ideology holding the individual rather than the state responsible; rendering homelessness simply a failure to take responsibility at a personal level.

In the last days of 2011 I don’t believe that rising homelessness and rough sleeping is an accident, nor a failure of individuals but is rather an inevitable and predictable outcome of housing and welfare policies. Take a look at housing allocation policies, welfare benefit reforms, cuts in support services and localism for an alarming cocktail of policy that will deny increasing numbers of people access to basic essentials.

Perhaps a bit random but I stumbled across a UNICEF statistic relating to UK child poverty recently .

In 1979 1 in 10 children were considered to be in poverty

By 1997 the proportion had grown to 1 in 3

Without getting into the whole debate of measuring poverty I was initially shocked to consider the shift in children’s life chances but began to join up the dots by asking a few simple questions

Was this shift an accident?

Was it inevitable?

Could it have been prevented?

Was it predictable?

Was it negligent or deliberate?

How could this happen in a wealthy, modern democracy?

Assuming for a moment that you accept the UNICEF figures and agree that they’re reasonable questions to ask, what answers do you come up with?

Beyond the statistics, I’ve been struck by the level of apathy and resignation of professionals in my local housing sector to the increasingly damaging impact of locally applied national policies. But what do you do? Keep your head down, get on with your job and hope you’re not on the wrong side of the fence?

The view from my local housing authority is that with already high levels of homelessness across the town, the situation for an increasing number of people is about to get a whole lot worse. Current and proposed government ‘welfare’ reforms will plunge a modern generation of people into crisis.

Cuts to support services developed over the last ten years will push more people and whole communities further to the margins of society. This will be at great cost to the public purse because there are no real savings to be recovered from the blunt edge of a desperate programme of cuts, just an ever-rationed offer to those still with access to a service.

For example,

Who believes that the health bill won’t rise as a result with increased pressure on mental and physical health services?

Who believes that the bill for crime won’t rise as increasing numbers of people engage in offending behaviour?

The stakes are rising on a daily basis with ideologically driven policy set to dramatically increase inequality, the one thing in my view that must be narrowed to provide for a fairer and more just society.

I started off on a trip back to the 1980s but equally we might be heading back to the 1880s, the 1930s or other bygone era unless we choose not to.

History has a habit of repeating itself. Much of the near future can be seen in the very recent past and it’s not going to be fun for the majority but we do have choices

A choice to ignore, collude or challenge.

I’d be interested to know your choice and understand your views…

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