Homelessness Debate [14/12/2016]

Ronnie Cowan MP

What does homelessness actually entail? In the words of Rachel Moran in her excellent book, “Paid For”,

“The word ‘homeless’ seems to present the condition as a single lack, but homelessness is actually many individual deficiencies combined. The worst of them are emotional; but to mention the physical challenges first: the single worst bodily aspect of homelessness is exhaustion. It is caused by several factors, including sleep-deprivation, hunger and a constant need to remain on the move.”

This explanation of homelessness is insightful, because it shows us just how inadequate the word “homeless” is. To live without a fridge, cooker, television, shower, sofa or bed is a struggle that homeless people contend with daily. It might start with sleeping on a friend’s sofa, then another friend’s; but then a week-long stay becomes a day here, a day there, until the night comes when there is no sofa available, and instead a doorway is used, probably nearby at first, but then the person drifts; and one day they have to acknowledge that they are homeless. It does not start that way. We all see homeless people, but we never suspect that we will become one. How damaging to a person’s self-esteem and mental health is that moment when homelessness becomes an acknowledged reality? How does anyone find their way back?

In Scotland, the number of homelessness applications is decreasing, from a peak of over 60,000 in 2005-06 to 34,600 in 2015-16. Some 294 of these applications were made in my constituency, and that is 294 too many. We have made progress, but Shelter Scotland has indicated that there has been no underlying change in the drivers of homelessness. Almost half of those who have made homelessness applications in Scotland are single males, and 16% are single females with a child. Shamefully, many of those people are ex-service personnel—people who have made the highest commitment to serve their country but have not received the support they deserve.

Although homelessness is primarily tackled by the UK and devolved Governments, local authorities also play an important role. Scottish local authorities have been hindered by policies born in this place, such as the right to buy, which was not reinforced by a need to build. According to Scottish Government statistics, we have lost over 450,000 homes from the social rented sector as a result of the right to buy, and thousands of the homes that remain are of dubious quality. It is estimated that about one in 10 households in Scotland are affected by dampness or condensation. Thankfully, the Scottish Government have ended the right to buy, and more than 16,000 new homes have been built in the last year—a rate higher than the UK average.

I hope to see this issue prioritised as a matter of public policy across the UK, particularly as homelessness is increasingly being stigmatised. Recently, The Huffington Post reported that Crisis spoke to 458 people who were sleeping rough or had slept rough in the last year and said they were facing “ever-more hostile streets”. Councils, developers, businesses and other organisations are deploying “defensive architecture”, including iron and concrete studs placed in flat areas to prevent homeless people from finding a place to sleep. It makes me wonder what the threat is and why we need to defend ourselves from it. A compassionate society should not be deploying medieval-style defences against vulnerable people who need assistance. So-called defensive architecture is dehumanising and sends a clear message: “go away, disappear, you’re not wanted”.

Homelessness is an issue of priorities. Instead of encouraging developers to build luxury apartments, some of which are bought up as investments and never lived in, we should be building social housing. Our welfare system must also be tailored in a compassionate way that enables people to have a platform on which to build their own lives. Our current system does not provide that support. A universal basic income could be a solution to address social ills and protect the most vulnerable from becoming homeless. At the very least we should be exploring that possibility, instead of tinkering around the edges of a system that is in need of a more fundamental reform. I will concede, however, that homelessness is a complex issue, and one that cannot be eliminated just by burying it with money and legislation. Homelessness is not only an issue of housing; it is also the product of inequality, poverty, domestic abuse, family breakdown and addiction. It can happen to anyone from any background.

In conclusion, we should never allow ourselves to accept homelessness as an inevitable result of a modern society. It is not inevitable and it does not need to happen. Complacency on the part of the UK Government will result in a failure to tackle this issue. Rising living costs, stagnating wages and the UK’s mismanaged welfare system are putting increased pressure on homelessness services. My fear is that the progress made at Holyrood is being undermined by welfare decisions taken at Westminster. Ultimately, people sleeping rough tonight do not care whether local authorities, devolved Administrations or the UK Government have the power to help them; they just need support. It is up to all elected Members across the UK to ensure they receive that support.

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