We had a gleam in our eye when we talked to the Centre for Social Justice about a recent series for this site. It was about five giants of our time, equivalents of William Beveridge’s wartime ones, first brought up to date by Iain Duncan Smith (the Centre’s co-founder).
Beveridge’s were Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance and Disease. Those for our series were worklessness, educational underachievement, mental health, homelessness, serious personal debt and, since we extended the series into a sixth day, domestic abuse.
Homelessness and rough sleeping are not the same, but the second usually comes from the first, and is at the heart of it. The glint in our eye was that, of all these ravaging experiences, rough sleeping was the least hard to eliminate over the course of a Parliament.
If Boris Johnson didn’t agree, the last Conservative Manifesto would have fought shy of pledging to “end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament”.
How is the Government doing? Earlier this week, it was able to announce that rough sleeping figures at a six year low, having fallen by 43 per cent since 2018, with 2,688 people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020, compared to 4,677 in 2018.
£750 million will be spent over the next year to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, including what the Housing, Communities and Local Government Departments says is “the largest ever investment in longer-term move on accommodation, with 6,000 new homes pledged by the end of this Parliament”.
Undoubtedly, a major contributor to that fall has been the Government’s “Everyone In” programme launched at the start of the pandemic, which made creative use of empty rooms in closed hotels and hostels.
But readers will see that the drop began back in 2018, two years before the arrival of Covid-19, and it continued at the same pace after Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019. What was happening?
As so often, there are a mass of contributors to the answer – such as the Government’s Next Steps Accommodation Programme, with its support for local councils and their partners in the voluntary sector, other state agencies and civil society.
One, however, stands out – which brings us back to the CSJ and also to, among others, four Conservatives. The first is Brooks Newmark, who chaired a CSJ working group that produced, three years ago, a report called Housing First.
Housing First, in Brooks’ words, “provides wrap-around support for some of the most vulnerable long-term rough sleepers, many of whom have complex needs including mental health and addiction issues. Critically, Housing First does not place conditions upon participants.”
Here is a Government estimate of detail behind the claim: it’s latest estimate is that 53 per cent of participants of Everyone In who had slept rough were ex-prisoners, 60 per cent had substance misuse needs and 82 per cent had mental health support needs.
In short, any government could provide a Potemkin solution to rough sleeping, were it ruthless enough, by forcing rough sleepers off the streets and incarcerating them in squalid conditions – while making no attempt to address what drove them to sleep rough in the first place.
And since there are exactly as many stories about how people came to sleep rough as there are people who actually do so – and since no two people are the same – every rough sleeper needs personal care that will not only get him off the streets, but keep him off too.
That means housing first, as the scheme says, plus care that will at least reduce his substance abuse; or provide mental health support, and perhaps get and keep the person in work.
The second Tory in our tale is Sajid Javid, who took a keen interest in reducing rough sleeping when he was Communities Secretary, and helped persuade the Treasury to to fund three big Housing First pilots in Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands.
Writing recently on this site in the wake of a further CSJ report, Close to Home, Javid argued that Housing First should “be scaled up from 2,000 to 16,500 places to become a flagship policy for people whose homelessness is compounded by multiple disadvantage”.
Which takes us to the third Conservative – Bob Blackman, who with Neil Coyle, a Labour MP, chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ending Homelessness.
Blackman, who steered a Homelessness Reduction Act through Parliament two years ago, was recently charged with Coyle and the group to undertake a review of Housing First.
It is, he declared late last November, “the cornerstone of successful homelessness strategies worldwide. It must be properly funded and rolled out across the UK”.
Which takes us to the last of our four Tories. Unlike the others, even Javid, he actually leads for the Government on reducing homelessness and rough sleeping, and so has responsibility for what happens next: Robert Jenrick.
The Housing Secretary knows very well that despite the stupendous spending, recent progress and success – under drastic conditions – of “Everyone In”, winter is coming, as they say in Game of Thrones – metaphorically, if not literally.
“There is already evidence that some who benefitted from the ‘Everyone-In’ programme are already returning to the streets and rough sleeping,” Brooks wrote recently, looking ahead to what we all hope will be the end of the pandemic.
“Many of these individuals fit the profile for needing Housing First support. As the furlough scheme unwinds and the ‘Everyone-In’ support scheme ends, there is a risk the trickle of individuals returning to the streets escalates throughout 2021.”
The CSJ recommended in Housing First that the programme be scaled up to £110 million a year over the course of a Parliament: that’s the best part of half a billion pounds over the course of a Parliament.
The Government’s £750 million for next year is the best part of a fifth of that figure, though of course it will be spread out over several schemes and to different bodies. Half a billion pounds from the Treasury would be a challenging ask.
Jenrick will seek to deliver the manifesto commitment and arm-wrestle the Treasury to the floor. But that gleam in our eye was dimmed, a few months ago, when we mulled an obstacle to delivering it.
And there will always be a queue – since the supply of housing is necessarily limited. Then there is welfare eligibility. The voluntary sector wants a temporary suspension of both the no recourse to public funds conditions for 12 months, and a suspension of the habitual residence test.
According to Government’s figures, that we quoted then 26 per cent of rough sleepers in 2019 were non-UK nationals, with a further ten per cent being of unknown national origin.
The voluntary sector wants a temporary suspension of both the no recourse to public funds conditions for 12 months, and a suspension of the habitual residence test, in order to help get them off the streets.
It’s unlikely that such changes would go down well with the focus groups, even given a lasting shift in public attitudes to welfare in the wake of Covid. Downing Street will be alert to the point.
We can see no reason why that percentage of rough sleepers, just over a quarter, should alter much once life and travel return to near the old normal. Perhaps the Government can end rough sleeping without changing those conditions – and honour its commitment. But it seems a big ask.