View from Westminster: For every rough sleeper there are 63 other ‘hidden homeless’

News Desk (13 February, 2019) Columnists

The Government claims it wants to halve rough sleeping by 2022 but, at the current rate, would not reach that target until 2051, some thirty years late!

18677Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP Neil Coyle

For every rough sleeper there are about 63 other homeless people. They are the ‘hidden homeless’ in temporary accommodation (including over 2,000 people in Southwark alone), or sofa-surfing with family and friends, or even sleeping on night buses as I have seen in my local surgery sessions, writes Neil Coyle – MP for Bermondsey & Old Southwark…

Last week I secured time to debate rough sleeping and the wider problem of homelessness in Westminster as co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Ending Homelessness Group.

It was the first debate on the rising issue in almost a year and over thirty MPs participated in the discussion from three political parties (Labour, the Conservatives and one SNP).

Three shocking statistics came out of the debate. Firstly, most people find rough sleeping unacceptable and desire greater Government action but for every rough sleeper there are about 63 other homeless people. They are the ‘hidden homeless’ in temporary accommodation (including over 2,000 people in Southwark alone), or sofa-surfing with family and friends, or even sleeping on night buses as I have seen in my local surgery sessions.

There are almost 5,000 rough sleepers across the country, but over 320,000 homeless people in total. Rough sleeping represents about a quarter of the tip of the gigantic homeless population which has grown every year since 2010. The Government claims it wants to halve rough sleeping by 2022 but, at the current rate, would not reach that target until 2051, some thirty years late! In many parts of the country, rough sleeping continues to rise including by 13% in London and a massive 60% increase in Birmingham last year.

The costs of homelessness are also growing. councils often shoulder the bill, but ill health in this group also costs the NHS massively through avoidable hospitalisation and the higher prevalence of mental health conditions amongst all homeless people.

The police and criminal justice system also foot higher costs. In the last few years, the overall number of people going to prison has fallen slightly, to just over 100,000 but the proportion of homeless people has grown to 27%. Prisoners in England and Wales cost an average of £35,000 a year to lock up (and more in Scotland and Northern Ireland) meaning a bill for the taxpayer of £945 million. This huge, avoidable sum could go much further if spent on preventative measures upfront but the Government lacks the policies and political will to do so, allowing the shame of rising homelessness to continue blighting out nation.

Brexit also continues to blight our country and, at the time of writing, the Prime Minister looks set to put her same agreement back to Parliament despite its record defeat previously. The Government has acknowledged that it cannot now pass all the necessary legislation and statutory instruments before the date the UK is supposed to leave the EU. Theresa May should be revoking or extending Article 50 but is paralysed with fear of the most rightwing elements of the Tory Party and DUP whilst employers and trade unions make clear the damage being done to jobs. This extreme situation is also avoidable. No one voted to be made worse off in the referendum three years ago and no one will thank or reward May if her Government inflicts avoidable pain on British people.

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