Some unusual events make a point in a pertinent but roundabout way. Westminster Council has turned away a ‘Homeless Jesus’ in the form of a life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus sleeping on a park bench by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, which was planned to be placed in front of Methodist Central Hall. With a characteristic sense of propriety and priority, Westminster say it “would fail to maintain or improve (preserve or enhance) the character or appearance of the Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square conservation area”. As a metaphor for what is happening to homeless people generally, this could be the most apt since the ‘bicycling baronet’ Sir George Young (allegedly) complained about stepping over homeless people coming out of the opera.
Of course the housing crisis in London is largely about the failure of supply over 3 decades. But there is also a specific crisis at the sharpest end of the general housing shortage. Homelessness appears out of control, with numbers in all categories rising rapidly and costs escalating. Councils and homelessness organisations are increasingly frantic, yet virtually all the housing programmes in the capital have had their focus switched callously from providing rented homes targeted at vulnerable people or people on low incomes to shoring up home ownership and increasing the chances of first time buyers. No new build of social rented homes combined with the forced sale of rented housing association and council homes will guarantee that supply in the form of new lettings will fall rapidly. The only questions are how rapidly and how disastrous will the impact be?
If (I hope when) Sadiq Khan becomes mayor of London the focus will change and people in desperate housing need will get a look in again. The mayor used to have a big role in homelessness, targeting part of the investment programme towards alleviating homelessness and taking a strong role in the provision of housing and other services to those who were homeless on the streets or living in hostels. Over the past few years the rights of homeless people have been downgraded – both by legislative changes under the Tories and by increased ‘gatekeeping’ by councils of all colours. Some councils, like Islington, have done everything in their power to keep up the supply of social rented homes; others, like Westminster, have failed over decades to take opportunities to get more social housing in the borough, and yet expect the rest of London to share their current burden.
Landlords have made the most of the lack of focus of the current mayor, exploiting competition for temporary accommodation between councils to push up rates, increasingly insisting on nightly lets that maximise their income. Some boroughs have been fighting back, starting to co-ordinate their activities to set maximum rates they will pay. A powerful new mayor will be in a good position to ratchet up these activities and push the councils to do far more. In particular, the mayor should ensure that the Notify system – where boroughs inform each other of cross-border movement so, for example, children can remain linked in to care services – is rigorously enforced.
There is at least some fresh thinking going on about homelessness. The House of Commons Select Committee on Communities and Local Government is in the middle of a wide-ranging homelessness inquiry which seems to be getting to the real issues – the evidence submitted is well worth reading. This week an expert panel convened by Crisis published its recommendations following its independent review of the homelessness legislation, proposing a new legislative framework with a stronger duty on local authorities to help prevent homelessness and to act in advance of a crisis, close to the model adopted in Wales. There is a lot in this to debate and this is a highly recommended and suitably technical report, but I am cautious because ‘prevention’ has too often become ‘gatekeeping’ in practice as homelessness has been de-prioritised by Government, councils, and housing providers. I am made even more wary by reports that the Government is considering imposing a new legal duty on councils to prevent homelessness. More duties and fewer homes to put people in seems like the kind of localism this Government believes in.
The following are recommended reading on homelessness.
Official ‘Statutory Homelessness’ statistics – latest bulletin
Rough sleeping statistics: the number of rough sleepers increased by 27% in London and 31% in the rest of England in one year up to autumn 2015. Latest bulletin
The Homeless Monitor – the fifth annual monitor published by Crisis records all the trends and forecasts in England. Written by a very expert team of Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Hal Pawson, Glen Bramley, Steve Wilcox and Beth Watts.