The latest figures released from CHAIN, the official online database which records the numbers of rough sleepers were released on Thursday. They were not good news. They showed a rise of 13% this year in the numbers of those sleeping rough. This means that rough sleeping has increased 62% over the last 2 years and has doubled over the last 5. And all this during a period when the Mayor had made a personal commitment to reduce rough sleeping to zero by the end of 2012.
The story led the BBC to visit the Day Centre run by West London Mission in Westminster, which is the area with by far the highest numbers of rough sleepers. We showed them what we do and talked about how the rise in rough sleeping has affected our work. A few years ago, 60-70 rough sleepers meant a full house, but now we regularly get between 90-100 coming through the doors each day. Also the proportion of those who are new rough sleepers has increased dramatically – over 70% of those coming to us are new to the street. Many of these people do not have high needs, in terms of alcohol, drug use or mental health issues, but are newly homeless for mainly economic reasons.
And just as the demand has increased, we have seen our resources cut. In April our largest government grant of £140,000 (almost a third of our total income) was cut to zero. Never in the 40 years that we have run the centre have we received less government money for what we do and we are more dependent than ever on donations from our supporters.
This is the reality of austerity Britain – and the likelihood is that it will only get worse as the changes to Housing Benefit and the upheaval of the transition to Universal Credit kicks in.
A political issue
As well as a human tragedy, rough sleeping will always be a sharply political issue. This is because it is the tip of the ice-burg of poverty, a visible indicator of wider and deeper social problems. Often poverty remains relatively hidden from the powerful on estates and in poorer areas where it is easier to ignore. Back in 1990, the sheer scale of the rough sleeping, forced even Margaret Thatcher’s government to fund the first ‘Rough Sleeping Initiative’. The impact of her social policies had become too much of a political embarrassment on the streets of Whitehall and Westminster to ignore any longer.
Since those days, the work of the homeless sector has become increasingly developed and better organised. Investment has led to hostels being vastly improved, innovations like the CHAIN database has helped communication and coordination between agencies and the work of outreach teams and day centres has become more focussed. It was this progress that led Boris Johnson to make such a public commitment to ending rough sleeping by the end of last year.
A cocktail of problems
But the failure to achieve this target was due to factors way beyond the scope of homelessness charities or even of the London Mayor. Homelessness is not a stand-alone issue, rather it is a crisis formed by a cocktail of many different social problems. The increase of unemployment, benefit changes, lack of affordable housing, poverty in Europe and family breakdown have all contributed to this rise.
As The Evening Standard’s editorial on Thursday put it:
‘Rough sleepers are a human yardstick of the condition of the economy, although their desperately sad plight also reflects social change, family breakdown and individual tragedy.’
The numbers of rough sleepers has political potency because they are such a visible reminder of wider problems in society. In this way the work of homeless charities always has a political edge to it. Whilst our work focusses on the tip of the ice-burg we must speak up about the factors which create the underlying causes. For Christian charities such as West London Mission, Desmond Tutu’s words are very appropriate:
‘The church should not just be pulling people out of the river. We need to go up-stream and find out who is pushing them in.’