Helping the Homeless

One quick look around our town or city centres and you will have noticed that the number of homeless people on the streets has grown. According to Shelter, 281,000 people were living in temporary accommodation, 21,300 were in homeless hostels and 4,500 were sleeping on the streets.

London, the economic powerhouse of the UK, also suffers from one of the biggest blights – it is the homeless capital as well. In London, one in every 59 people are homeless. The Borough of Newham has the worst record, where one in every 27 residents are homeless.

Obviously, the long-term aim is to ensure that everybody has a home to live in. However, we all recognise that it takes time to build houses and the existing housing crisis is well documented, especially in the South East.

Research by the University of New Mexico found that for every $1 invested in homelessness, $1.78 was saved from other expenditure – most notably health. It is unsurprising that many homeless people find themselves with health problems, addiction being a common one, so if we can deal with the issue of homelessness, we can also deal with many other problems at the same time.

So, how can we deal with it? As I mentioned earlier, we cannot house every homeless person in the short-term. Empty houses, in towns such as Middlesbrough, are at opposite ends of the country to the bulk of the homeless problem, London, and we cannot start taking private property off people.

I would like to see the UK make one very simple reform that could improve the lives of homeless people around the country. The Government should introduce provisions that allow homeless people to register at an institution such as the Job Centre, or a town hall and get a permanent address.

Without a permanent address, it becomes impossible to get a bank account. Without a bank account, it becomes impossible to get a job, as well as interact with the welfare state. Once a person goes off the grid, so to speak, it becomes incredibly difficult to return to it.

It is this which makes being homeless such a vicious cycle. Person A may lose a job and not be able to keep up with rent and bills, so becomes homeless. Now Person A has no address so cannot have a bank account and thus has no way of getting back into the job market. This is a situation which many people may face as millions have less than £100 in savings according to this report.

If we want to help homeless people in the short-term, this is one reform which could make a significant difference to them. It would give them a chance to get back into work, or to at least interact with the welfare state before getting back into work. This is a reform which could help to end the vicious cycle of homelessness.

* Collingwood is a Liberal Democrat member in London who is known to the editorial team.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Sue Sutherland 29th May '18 - 1:10pm

    Tom, you are right that once you become homeless its very difficult to get back into society. My husband used to run the homeless organisation in Bath and for some purposes clients were able to use the night shelter address. I would like us to include the right to shelter in a bill of rights if we haven’t already done so. For people who are trying desperately not to become excluded from society and hanging on by their fingernails your idea would definitely help. However there are many more who need a lot of support before they can make a go of living in a home of their own.

  • William Fowler 29th May '18 - 3:07pm

    There also seems a block to people moving from benefits to employment in that they are supposed to move out of the hostel and paying the going rate for a bedsit often makes it not worthwhile (a huge chunk of salary ate up by greedy landlord and energy co’s) so having cheap single room hostel accommodation for those on minimum wages would give them a chance to get ahead of the game and eventually move on to their own place rather than seeing all their earnings disappear in living expenses.

    Not sure how to deal with the addicts, I had one collapse outside my house and decide to use the front gate and step as a chair. Of course, I rushed out to see if he needed a cushion or some light refreshments but he told me not to worry as he was just having a bit of a sit down for a while then staggered upright, wandered off up the road muttering obscenities. Half hour later, a police car cruised past and eventually picked him up further up the street. I could have offered him my spare room or even garage but had the feeling he would have run off with anything he could sell to fund his habit. He didn’t look far off needing the NHS so right about the health expenses but was he homeless because he was an addict or an addict because he was homeless?

  • Steve Trevethan 29th May '18 - 8:31pm

    Thank you for a timely and interesting article and a good suggestion.
    The increase in homelessness and food poverty, aka starvation, even for those with needed skills such as nursing, is the result and purpose of current economic policies and practices.
    “Austerity” harms and kills by moving wealth from the many to the few, as is its purpose. It shows first with the weakest.
    If “Austerity” is not analysed and attacked its effects will affect more and more of us.

  • Tom Purvis makes a good suggestion but it needs to be part of much wider reform.

    Tim Farron in his first big conference speech as leader told us he was inspired to get into politics as a teenager by watching a repeat of the 1966 film Cathy Come Home, a ground-breaking drama documentary on homelessness that coincided with the foundation of the charity Shelter.

    The film recounted that post-war governments thought housing shortages were a temporary problem that would be resolved by the post-war building boom.

    Homelessness and poor housing was a huge issue back in 1966. The film prompted a parliamentary debate and many people decided Something Must Be Done – namely, the development of more social housing.

    Ken Loach’s film stands as testament to the social horrors of the mid-60s, but
    we did not learn from the play, but rather buried our heads in the sand, focused only on the economically idiotic belief that home ownership and high house prices were a social good. Fifty years on, the government has pushed through help to buy schemes and a Housing Act that seems destined to create thousands more Cathys across the country.

    The central message of the film remains resonant today. Housing is needed where the jobs and wealth are; and jobs and wealth are needed where land for housing is in plentiful supply.

  • Julian Heather 30th May '18 - 9:17am

    Well said, Joe B, namely: “Housing is needed where the jobs and wealth are; and jobs and wealth are needed where land for housing is in plentiful supply.”

    I’m not, by nature a believer in continuous intervention in the market, but having some form of effective regional policy to get jobs and wealth redistributed to the north and the Midlands is just plain common sense.

    Back in the 60’s, Harold Wilson was a great advocate of regionalism, through “Neddy”. (Though I’m not sure if he actually achieved anything lasting in terms of regional development)

    But we do need a regional economic policy, to get new jobs created in the old industrial heartlands. At least George Osborne was on to something with the Northern Powerhouse idea.

    But intervention is certainly needed, as the market isn’t working.

    There area lots of jobs in London and the South East, but only scarce and overpriced housing for workers and their families.

    Outside of London and the South East, there is often lots of affordable housing (much of it empty, and being demolished) but not the volume and scale of jobs to persuade and enable people to move north.

  • A good article and a policy area that should definitely be a focus of ours.

  • Peter Hirst 30th May '18 - 5:11pm

    There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that allows people to live on the streets. It cannot be beyond our whit to have a process in place to prevent and act swiftly when it occurs. To see people on the main streets of London and elsewhere with their belongings bedding down beggars belief. There is a distinct lack of concern for the physical, emotional and mental consequences.

  • Steve Trevethan 30th May '18 - 5:32pm

    Policies, such as “Austerity”, have more than one facet.
    There is the policy language/theory part which is somewhere between the accurate and the inaccurate and the overt and the covert. Other parts are policy actions and policy consequences.
    What happens as a result of a policy is, in actuality, the most important part of a policy. If a result of a policy is seriously harmful and life-threatening and little or nothing is done to modify that policy, then it may be reasonably seen as part of that policy and so addressed as such. [Ditto disability assessments]
    Similarly the Gini coefficient, which certainly did reduce during the Coalition Years, is an important data based simulation of an aspect of our economy. No less important is the actuality of starving nurses and homeless fellow citizens.
    Simulation and actuality are are both vital for policy creation and modification.

  • The economist James Robertson advocates a a shift from redistribution to the idea of predistribution. “Whereas redistributive taxes aim to correct the outcomes of economic activity, predistributive taxes and charges such as Land Value Tax) will share the value of essential inputs to economic activity. Whereas redistribution is dependency reinforcing, predistribution will be empowering. It will correct any underlying cause of economic injustice, inequality exclusion and injustice.”

    Redistribution takes the form of a guaranteed income to every citizen that replaces existing subsidized state benefits and services . It has been called variously a citizen’s Income or basic income and has a long history of discussion by politicians but has never been achieved in practice.

    The question of who has possession of the land is less important than whether they are using it wisely and efficiently. With a significant part of the economic rent from the land remitted back to each citizen equally, freehold ownership loses much of its monopoly power. Additionally, the benefits of new fairer land and resource taxes should be passed as directly and as universally as possible to citizens.
    The principle for the spending of the revenues raised by the various LVT measures should be to return that portion of the value-added back to the authorities that created it as far as possible, and that what is left, being the pure economic rent derived from the natural or locational quality of land, should be shared out equally as the beginnings of a Citizens Income (or Basic income) to be used for housing costs and other necessary basic essentials.

    Value-added by national investment such as national roads, airports, railways, hospitals, third level colleges, decentralised government offices etc. could form the basis of a revised local authority block grant to be used to equalise revenues across local authorities. Apportioning this value is a political decision to be negotiated at national and local level. Value-added by the local business and social community investment should, by the same token, be assessed and spent by a local enterprise partnership through a ‘participative budgetary’ process. An independent source of funds for local sustainable development investment might prove just the thing to rescue these partnership structures from total irrelevancy.

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