Happy New Year to everyone from Red Brick. Let’s hope 2015 is a much better year for housing than 2014. As Robin Williams (see below) said ‘You can’t keep picking people up; you have to stop them from falling.’
It probably has something to do with events in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, but there is always an outpouring of concern for the homeless around this time of year. The compassion normally dissipates by New Year’s Day. Many tens of thousands of people are homeless all year round, and it will be just as cold in January and February when the emotional and religious strings aren’t being pulled. In the other months of the year, the shocking level of homelessness, like the shocking level of poverty, exposes our society to be lacking in compassion, preferring to blame the victim, and unwilling to tackle problems that are solvable with a bit of gumption.
Reflecting on the life of Chris Holmes, as I have been doing recently, makes me think that it is time for a new drive to build a genuine safety net for the homeless based on a basic right to a decent secure home. The first step would be to accept that homelessness is primarily a systemic issue, caused by housing shortage. It cannot be addressed by an approach based on personal pathology, as Iain Duncan Smith would have us believe.
At least this Christmas there has been some hard information around about who becomes homeless and why. For example, a survey of single homeless people for Crisis warned about ‘the tragic waste of young lives’ after showing that half of homeless people first experience it under the age of 21, and become vulnerable to violence, substance abuse and problems with physical and mental ill health. There has been extensive sympathetic media coverage of homelessness, including from newspapers that are normally hostile – including even the Mail. Others with a better reputation, for example Channel 4 News, put together the statistics in special briefings. The Labour Party collated figures which showed that nearly 61,000 families would spend Christmas in emergency accommodation, including more than 87,000 children. They estimated the cost of temporary accommodation over this Parliament to be £2.8billion – equivalent, in cash terms, to two years’ worth of Government grant for new affordable homes. .
Homeless peoples’ rights have waxed and waned over the last few decades since the high spot of the 1977 Act. Labour’s 2002 Act, which restored core rights taken away by the Tories in 1996, could have been revolutionary because it married stronger rights for individuals with new duties, in particular a requirement on councils to analyse the reasons for homelessness in their areas and prepare a comprehensive homelessness strategy to deal with the problems identified. Excellent in principle, the Act was destroyed by bad execution. Driven by a growing shortage of supply of social housing, and a well-intentioned but ultimately wrong-headed target to halve the numbers in temporary accommodation, many councils responded to their new duties by becoming more vigilant gatekeepers, finding new ways of ‘diverting’ people or turning them away. The revolving door of insecurity meant that many people were pushed back into the private rented sector, often many miles from their family and community. Bizarrely at a time when we’re supposed to be saving money, the system that is now being operated is more expensive than the far better option of providing more homes at social rent. Labour is right to point out that numbers in temporary accommodation have grown by 20% since 2010, but the figure in 2010 was already a disgrace.
Under the Coalition, after many years of slow progress under Labour, all of the homelessness statistics are now rising rapidly. There is of course no reason why more people in the population should suddenly become more feckless or enter the ranks of troubled families – Duncan Smith’s favourite pigeon hole – so it is glaringly obvious that the main problem lies in the lack of supply of genuinely affordable homes. To this can be added a general de-prioritisation of the homeless in the allocation of social housing. As a Government adviser on homelessness said when the latest framework for homelessness was introduced in 2012: ‘The overall conclusion of introducing this framework is inevitably that new statutory homelessness applications will become minimal.’
One person who was concerned about the homeless all year round was the actor Robin Williams, who sadly died earlier in the year. He always had a rider in his contract for any movie he made that the producers must employ a certain number of homeless people. This evidently compared with other actors wanting private jets, on tap champagne, and such like.
Williams was a longtime advocate for Homeless Rights. In 1990, he testified before the Senate in support of the Homeless Prevention and Revitalization Act. In his testimony he said ‘The problem cannot be denied anymore… I do believe this can work in an incredible way, from a grassroots level, that the money can get to and prevent, truly prevent, homelessness. That’s where it lies. You can’t keep picking people up; you have to stop them from falling. That’s what I hope. Thank you.’
One of Robin’s greatest and most testing roles was playing a homeless man in the ‘The Fisher King’ in 1991, with its sensitive portrayal of homelessness and mental illness.
Robin Williams as Parry in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King