England & Wales Housing and planning, Welfare and equalities

Can we make rough sleeping a thing of the past?

Phil Woolas is an advisor to the 2020 Initiative to end rough sleeping. Here the former DCLG Minister of State explains why this is a pivotal moment in the fight to end homelessness and summarises the LGIU online event on the topic with Dame Louise Casey.

‘What a funny old world’ as someone once said. Who would have thought that we would have a chance to effectively end rough sleeping once and for all within a few months of the new government? The circumstances may be tragic but the fact is, as we heard from Dame Louise Casey at the superb LGIU seminar this week, we now do have the opportunity to move much faster towards the goal, as far as is humanly possible, of ending the awful reality of human beings living on the streets.

Can we make rough sleeping a thing of the past?You can watch LGIU’s full webinar on strategies on tackling homelessness & rough sleeping with our keynote speaker Dame Louise Casey here with passcode 9c?S?G84.

Successive governments have been judged on how they deal with rough sleeping and the fact that it never goes away but I know, as former Minister for Supporting People, that if it was that simple it would have been eradicated many years ago.

It is easy to blame local authorities and governments for having people on the streets when we have so many empty properties – and, quite rightly, the press does point the finger. Yet when it comes to dealing with the root causes, housing is only a small part of what puts someone on the streets in the first place and what keeps them there.

There are many charities that deal with drug and alcohol abuse, the effects of mental health, ex-offenders, service people who have lost their way and so on. These incredible organisations are often working to help people on the streets but with very few options to really start to be able to rehabilitate the person. It is an elephant in the room in politics that the wider public, who want to see people taken off the streets, often do not want them moving into their communities.

That side of the rough sleeping issue is often unspoken. It’s also true that sometimes for the individual who is sleeping rough and has been for some time, their community lives with them, on the streets, and has become their family. This bond can be the only positive thing they value in their lives and so to be moved away can be scarier than remaining in the cold.

Now, we can break the vicious circle. One of the least expected outcomes of the Covid pandemic has been rough-sleepers being rehoused into hotels, allowing people to be worked with and supported. The Rough Sleeping initiative has shown that this is possible.

Now, as hotels begin to need their rooms back, we must stop people making their way back to their old lives on the street and resuming business as usual. Dame Louise outlined to the LGIU this week how the government with local authorities and the third sector are aiming to achieve this incredibly important goal.

The 2020 Initiative, which was planned before the lockdown, is one weapon in the locker. It uses pension fund money to help meet the goal. By buying homes and making them available to charities and local authorities on a long term basis, the investment is returned by the rents, which are lower than the benefits which people in need receive, and are affordable as tenants move into stable and normalised living. This is not the only Housing First policy but, because the investment is long term, it’s a win win for the councils, the pension fund members and, most importantly, the tenants. We have a ring fenced fund of £236m to provide homes in places that the partners want them and we have proven our model in pilot schemes: with ex-offenders in Merseyside with the Big Help and for victims of domestic abuse in Birmingham and Sandwell.

Rough sleeping is an issue for us all and the solution lies in setting up partnerships and the expertise of agencies working on the front line and taking a few risks in the name of progress. 2020 can provide the homes and the partners are proving that tenants can be helped. If the public becomes convinced that rough sleeping is being eradicated AND the victims are on a path to normality, we will break the vicious circle.

I don’t think we will get a better chance in this generation.

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