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I HAVE written in my Morning Star column before how the homelessness levels in our country are a national scandal, and news this week confirmed the human costs of the Tories’ inaction in this area, as well as being a devastating indictment of 10 years of austerity cutting so many essential public services to the bone.
The Museum of Homelessness (MoH) — which describes itself as “a community-driven social justice museum, based in London and created and run by people with direct experience of homelessness” — this week released the figure that 976 homeless people across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland died last year (2020.)
This 2020 figure was a 37 per cent increase in the number of deaths reported in 2019.
The Museum of Homelessness has done an important job in bringing to light these shocking figures, which were gathered through more than 300 freedom of information requests.
Within the figures are included the deaths of people who were living on the streets, in temporary accommodation, or “sofa surfing.”
These tragic figures represent the effect of years of austerity policies and a housing market which puts the rights of people to housing last — and the profit-hungry needs of rich landlords and property developers first.
Numerous different cuts would have contributed, including (but not limited to) the attacks on local government budgets, mental health services, housing support and the welfare state generally.
As the MoH spokesperson correctly put it, “these heartbreaking findings demonstrate how the pandemic hit a system already cut to the bone from 10 years of austerity and the scale of the challenge we face to recover. The government needs to stop repackaging old funding commitments as new support and do more to stop this terrible loss of life.”
In the first lockdown due to the Covid crisis in 2020 – but it must be said not fully repeated in subsequent lockdowns – the government supported the “Everyone In” scheme to house homeless people. As part of this, 15,000 rough sleepers were helped off the streets by local authorities and charities. It literally saved hundreds (possibly thousands) of lives and showed that with the political will this scar on our country can be dealt with.
But the reality since then is that many local authorities were unable to organise suitable longer-term accommodation once the scheme was ended in May, along with the £3.2m in government funding that had been provided to each council in England.
While some councils – notably the left-led Labour council in Haringey which is seeking to develop 37 new modular homes to provide support and security for homeless people – others have not moved the majority of people that were being housed during “Everyone In” into private or council accommodation.
The overall picture is that while homelessness in 2010 when the Tories came to power was at less than half of the shameful level it is at today, spending on dealing with this issue is well below what it was a decade ago.
According to the charity Shelter, in December 2019 an estimated 280,000 people were homeless in England (one in 200), and government stats published in February 2020 showed that 4,266 people on any single night are sleeping rough.
This homelessness crisis is the sharp end of a deep housing crisis, which can only be resolved by radical action and investment, including through the building of council housing on a massive scale.
In the Tory austerity era, the number of new homes being built never recovered to pre-recession levels and, specifically, the number of new homes built for social rent fell to ever lower levels.
This has mean that with people unable to get a council home, private renters face extortionate costs alongside a lack of the most basic rights.
As Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said this week “As we look towards recovery, ending the housing crisis must be a priority. Now is the time to challenge the status quo and actually build the social homes we need to give everyone the security of a safe home.
“Or we risk yet more homelessness and more death as the legacy of Covid-19.”
To tackle the housing crisis, will take resources plus political will and determination.
For socialists, it must be a priority to do all we can to keep this issue on the agenda and build movements in our communities across the country.
Now is the time to tackle the housing crisis — and its sharp end, the homelessness crisis — and to do that we need to build at least a million new homes in five years, with at least half a million council homes.
Such a council house-building scheme would also have great benefits to the economy and in creating employment.
We also need action to put renters first rather than profit-making landlords, including through meaningful rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private-tenants’ rights as included in Labour’s last Manifesto.
When we say there must be no return to “business as usual,” this must also mean ending the broken housing system.
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