This is the sixth in a series of blogs from the finalists of this year’s Policy Idol competition. These blogs were originally presented as policy pitches at the live final of the competition earlier this year. Policy Idol is an annual competition open to all staff and students at King’s.
By Oliver Marks, Katie-Louise Marvin, Paul Ng and Emma Shleifer
Homelessness is around us all the time yet we barely notice it. Many of us prefer to put the problem down as something out of our control. It is time we face the facts: homelessness is getting worse. Since 2010, it has increased by over 30 per cent nationwide. This is largely due to increased housing costs forcing more people to the streets, and the inefficient management of the issue.
Rough sleepers face gargantuan problems. The traumas of living on the streets and resulting health problems combine to reduce an individual’s average lifespan to a mere 47 years in a country where people usually live to 81. The average homeless person is four times more likely to attend A&E every year, costing the NHS nearly £85 million annually.
Government policy since 2010 has been flawed. £500 million was invested in homelessness aid since then, yet frontline care services have reported seeing real funding halved. While correlation does not imply causation, the fact that homelessness has more than doubled in the same period is arguably an indictment of current policy. Policy leans heavily on the charitable sector, and while this is certainly valuable, the government ultimately has the responsibility to aid such individuals alongside charity. Without effective and appropriately directed funding, it cannot hope to fulfil this responsibility. A great deal has been invested in the problem, but it is not going where it is needed. As homelessness looks set to grow in the coming years, as the government continually cuts funding, relief services will come under greater pressure and be less able to aid those at risk of homelessness. The economic pressures of Brexit will inevitably take their toll on those at risk of homelessness, and it will become vital to take substantial preventative measures to head off an untenable situation. Efficient, timely redirection of funding is needed to avert a crisis.
There is equally a distinct lack of policy direction for dealing with homelessness in government strategy. There are no real policies in place to aid single men (aged 26-65) on the streets, despite them accounting for the largest single group of homeless individuals, at 79 per cent. Even within government there is an awareness of the need for change. Clive Betts, then chair of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, stated in 2015 that, ‘The scale of homelessness is now such that a renewed Government strategy is a must.’ Yet since then little effort has been made to adequately rethink policy. Recent bills have met little progress, largely because they are attempting to impose strategy we know has failed onto a system that is facing increasing challenges. Clearly we need to redirect funds and adapt existing structures towards a new, needs-based system.
Housing and work alone do not solve homelessness. Measures should be adapted to the individual as much as possible. Tailoring them to the three most prevalent groups among the homeless population would be a step in the right direction. In the first group, physically and mentally healthy individuals who are ‘simply’ out of work would benefit from the following approaches:
- Simplifying the procedure to gain access to existing government-provided benefit schemes, as current systems require excessively complex paperwork.
- Vocational training through an apprenticeship structure.
- Government-sponsored monthly pensions issued partly in the form of housing credit, with the remaining amount providing manageable basic income structure.
- Preference matching: matching current market demands to a person’s skills. For instance, skilled trades currently have vacancy rates of 43 per cent.
Individuals suffering from physical and/or mental health issues, and those suffering from substance abuse issues, are the second and third groups of people suffering from homelessness, accounting for 80 per cent and 39 per cent of the UK homeless population respectively, as individuals often suffer from more than one health problem. People in these two groups would benefit from being placed under medical care in existing facilities, or, if they are willing and it is medically appropriate to do so, placed in a household as part of a system adapted from the current foster-care system.
However, such a needs-based approach requires decentralised authority in order to be carried out at the local level. While the governmental policy outlined above would be the guideline, finer implementation details would be carried out at the city-council level. Funds to support this policy would be redirected from current, ineffective homelessness policies.
Homelessness creates highly stigmatised and marginalised individuals. Learning from recent successful case studies such as Alberta, Canada, where homelessness is successfully declining after a implementing a programme of housing and targeted support, the UK has a unique chance to mitigate the worsening problem of homelessness rather than manage it with unsuccessful shelter systems. In this fight, needs-based social reintegration is key. It is about time we tackle homelessness head-on, solving rather than managing.
Oliver Marks, Katie-Louise Marvin, Paul Ng and Emma Shleifer are all studying for a BA in War Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.