Back in August 2018, the government unveiled a £100 million plan ‘to end rough sleeping by 2027’. Of this, £30 million was to be invested into mental health and prevention of substance abuse, along with £50 million on ‘homes outside London for people ready to move on from hostels or refuges’.
The plan may look like a step in the right direction, but in reality it’s not so much.
The pledge addresses a target of ‘up to 6,000 people’, compressed and contained within the definition of ‘rough sleeper’. It’s not really targeting the wider issue of homelessness; the 320,000 people Shelter reports as legally homeless who may not be sleeping ‘rough’ in public spaces.
But even Shelter’s estimate doesn’t account for the full phenomenon of ‘hidden homelessness’, which includes those who should technically be able to access support, but are stopped from doing so largely owing to the local authorities’ limited resources. So that number is likely much higher.
In England, local authorities have a duty to help anyone termed as statutorily homeless. However, as anyone who has grappled with local authorities knows, just because you are entitled to support doesn’t mean you’ll receive it. Council budget cuts, as well as extremely tight eligibility for classifying people with ‘statutory homelessness’ in the first place, are both serious restraints on providing the assistance homeless people often require.
According to figures released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as of 2018, there were only 21 rough sleepers in Norwich during the entire year. But there are no public guidelines on how this process was carried out or what exact area of Norwich was surveyed to create this number. All we know is observations are made around autumn on an annual basis. It doesn’t exactly sound professional, does it?
Let’s combine this figure with some knowledge of the Vagrancy Act, a piece of legislation older than both photographs and the discovery of aluminium. It’s an Act still used today to criminalise rough sleeping or begging. It allows for the arrest of people sleeping rough and is often used to threaten people to move on. Only last semester do I remember seeing a police officer yelling threats at a homeless man on Prince of Wales Road.
The government’s approach is wrong, and we need a much better answer for this growing problem. As for the suggestion only 21 people in Norwich were actually on the streets last year, I can say with almost certain conviction that if my local authority bombarded me with harassment and arrest, I’d be weary to show my face too.