Homelessness has grown across the developed world to a point where it is no longer just a welfare issue, but a crisis that has severe inter-generational humanitarian dimensions, and even possible consequences for social cohesion.
When it emerged recently that various UK councils have been housing homeless people - including families with children - in shipping containers, many observers were shocked. This is understandable: some parts of the press are, for ideological or party political reasons, more concerned with abuses of public housing benefits rather than those who are shut out of the housing system completely.
Away from the headlines, homelessness is at epidemic levels in the UK, with some estimates stating that 1 in every 200 people in the country is homeless. Per capita, someone in Britain is three times more likely to be on the streets than in the United States, in spite of our much-celebrated welfare state and health service.
Homelessness makes us uncomfortable. It challenges our assumptions about global inequality, as well as the viability of our welfare state and governance, when we see large numbers of our fellow citizens living in conditions akin to refugee camps abroad.
Looking away, or shrugging indifferently, is an understandable reaction to an issue that is very difficult to make sense of. There are so many reasons for homelessness; every story is different. But there are recurring themes, both in terms of personal biographies and policy trends.
Mental illness, family breakdown, and substance dependence are often a part of homeless people’s lives. At a policy level, it is often a combination of our welfare system - a system that can push people onto the streets through sheer bureaucracy - and a lack of affordable housing, which itself is connected to overseas investors treating British homes like hedge funds.
Far from being purely a social concern for those on the left, homelessness disproportionately affects two groups that are particularly emotive for the Far Right: immigrants and military veterans. While homeless immigrants - whether legal or irregular - are seen as evidence of the need for stronger borders and draconian immigration policies, homeless veterans are used by the Far Right as symbols of the UK neglecting its own for the sake of new arrivals.
These tensions mean that Britain needs to get serious about tackling homelessness; for ethical as well as practical reasons.
The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes it illegal to be homeless. This ancient law means it is an offence to sleep rough or beg. Remaining in force in England and Wales, leaving anyone found to be sleeping in a public place or trying to beg for money open to arrest.
This attitude is implemented, to varying degrees, by police who, although may not typically enforce this particular law, often identify other legal issues because of the situations homeless people can find themselves in.
This hostile attitude to society’s most vulnerable may be because we instinctively dislike what we cannot understand.
Homelessness is complicated. Often people without homes have access to support (whether through the government, charities or even family and friends) but feel that they have no other option for refuge. Mental health is often a part of what drives people to the streets - something I have often seen through my work with the humanitarian charity Who is Hussain.
But the issue can be solved relatively easily. Since the current government seems committed to Universal Credit rather than cancelling the policy altogether, they could implement a simple safety net where someone’s home is protected and delays to payments do not mean that landlords are left out of pocket to the point where evictions ensue.
More broadly, there is a need for an increase in social housing across the country. This could be achieved through more financing options for councils who want to build new homes to offset their loss of housing stock due to right to buy.
And this could all be funded with a small tax on vacant properties. More than 11,000 homes across the UK have been empty for 10 years or more. If those landlords are wealthy enough to treat British homes like an appreciating asset and forego rental income, they can afford to pay a tax.
This would help renters and the trickle-down effect could also help the more disadvantaged.
The alternative is for policymakers to continue to ignore homelessness - but this is a problem that is painfully visible to us all.
- Neil Nasser has served as a youth worker and mentor, and volunteers for the humanitarian charity Who is Hussain.
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