Homelessness in the UK is rife, yet it is blatantly ignored by society. It sits silently on the fringes of everyday life like those it affects sit cold and silent on the side of busy pavements, cast aside as a modern phenomenon in the minds of passersby like copper coins thrown into a crumpled coffee cup.
Societal attitudes are slow to change, and when they do, are often preceded by government initiatives. But the latter have been lacklustre in effect, and today five households in England are made homeless every hour, according to the homelessness charity, Shelter.
Having only the streets to call home is a national epidemic that, like a disease, affects the most vulnerable in society. Research by Homeless Link reports that over half of those approaching local councils for help with homelessness are under 25 and more likely to remain homeless in the long term. Meanwhile, a study published in 2010 by the Homelessness Research Institute predicted that homelessness amongst over-65s will more than double by 2050, a statistic that crystallises the immense pressure put on the current adult social care infrastructure.
Having served in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan with the British Army, Ian (pictured above) traded his rifle for a pen as he sketches basic vignettes for loose change. He has been sleeping rough in Cambridge city centre for the last two years and relies heavily on local charities for interim relief after he was denied long term support by the council. Ian fears respite from the streets will come only in the form of his state pension, which for he has to wait a further six years.
Could the Homelessness Reduction Bill change all this? What is different about it?
So far measures have sought to address the residual impact of homelessness, mainly through government aid. However, only 19% of homelessness cases receive this type of support according to Homeless Link, and the caseload is about to get bigger. As part of its widely-criticised benefit sanctions regime, the Government announced on 5th March this year that it would scrap housing support payments altogether for under-21s in a draconian exercise of “moving the goalposts”.
By contrast, the private members’ Homelessness Reduction Bill is a conscientious recognition of individual rights in this area. The statute gives those at risk of becoming homeless a right under law to be provided with advice and assistance from their local council 56 days before losing their home (it is currently 28 days before homelessness). It is a much-needed preventative measure that takes into account the UN Committee’s recent review of the UK’s compliance with its obligation to protect human rights, as set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, particularly as regards to Article 11- the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to continuous improvement in living conditions.
Whilst, legally-speaking, the Bill is a step forward in preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place, it is not the panacea to the epidemic. The bottom line is, the effect of the Bill in tackling homelessness will not bear fruit until the lack of affordable housing, welfare reforms, and security of tenure for people like Ian is urgently addressed. But, at the very least and more than before, those at risk now have a stronger voice to demand to be heard.