We are all responsible

I have spent recent weekends speaking at a number of rallies against homelessness across the West Midlands.

Joan-McAlpine--homelessness

The main themes of my speeches have been that 50 years since Cathy Come Home led to a national outcry and the establishment of Shelter, homelessness is increasing, and that there is a direct link between Government policies and the increase.

I have written on a number of occasions about my own experience of being homeless in 1965 and of the impact of watching Cathy Come Home in 1966.

I am not going to repeat them here except to say the situation is as bad now as it was then.

Shelter have recently reported there are over 300,000 homeless people in the UK. They recognise this figure is an underestimate.

This represents 1 in 200 people. They add that at least 20,000 people are sleeping rough. These figures are bad enough but today they report around 128,000 children are currently homeless and that 2017 has seen the highest number of homeless children in a decade.

Many are living in hostels and emergency accommodation. Exactly the same situation that faced Cathy and her family all those years ago.

It is difficult to imagine the impact this has on the child’s school work, their social life, and on their mental health. I know from my own experience the impact that it had on my family. My brother identifies the time that we were homeless as one of the causes of his many mental health issues today.

What worries me is that we are no longer shocked by these statistics. When Cathy Come Home was shown in 1966 it caused a national outcry and eventually a change in government policy.

Where is the same outcry today? I am sure many are angry but we rarely hear their voices. Have we become less caring or more immune to the suffering of others?

We should be challenging the Government to recognise the causes of the increase. Even though they are many and complicated there is one constant. That is Government policy since 2008.

The private rented sector has been allowed to grow unchecked. This results in more insecure tenancies at rents that many cannot afford. This has led to an increase in evictions. This is happening in the housing association and local authority sector too.

The attack on the welfare state and cuts in benefits and caps has exacerbated the situation. This has taken away the safety nets that once existed.

The agencies that once would have intervened to prevent homelessness have disappeared. Killed off by reductions in grants and local and national support.

At the root of the problem is the lack of genuinely affordable homes. There is estimated to be a net loss of over 250,000 social rent homes in recent years.

The most recent figures show the net loss continues as the development of social rent homes is at an all-time low as sales and conversions continue to rise.

The Government in its recent budget failed to deliver any meaningful solutions. They continue to treat the symptoms of the crisis and not the causes.

This is because they fail to recognise and accept that their own policies are at the root of the problem. We as a sector are complicit in this as we have failed to hold them to account. We talk a lot about our concerns but collectively we fail to really challenge the government.

Arguing that change will come by working with and supporting government policies. I see little evidence of this. More importantly the growing numbers of homeless people and the Government’s failure to act shows that they are not listening to what we say.

We cannot solve the problem overnight but we can make a start. We do not need a task force to identify the solutions.

We need to take more control of the private rented sector by introducing; minimum standards, long term tenancies and rent controls.

We need to not just stop the reforms to welfare benefits but reverse them. We need to fund again organisations that intervene to prevent homelessness.

Like Scotland and Wales we need to halt the right to buy and any talk of its extension to housing associations. And we need to invest in social rent homes by providing substantial public investment and by allowing local authorities to borrow.

Finally let us remember that it is people who are homeless not statistics. It occurs every day of the year not just at Christmas. For every individual it is a tragedy.

We need to work with each individual in a way that suits them. Working with their strengths not their weaknesses. The old deficit models of intervention have failed.

Not only does the government need to change its approach. Many in the homeless sector need to change too.

It is a challenge for all of us. The first step is to recognise we all have some responsibility for the crisis. We all have a role to play in its solution. A decent home is a basic human right.

There was a time when it seemed we were beginning to understand this. Let us make it so again.

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