On 27 March 2020, Luke Hall, Minister for Local Government and Homelessness, sent a letter to local authorities instructing them that, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, it was ‘imperative that rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless are supported into appropriate accommodation by the end of the week’. The letter also promised that the full cost of housing every homeless person in the country would be provided for by central government grant. The seemingly intractable problem of street homelessness, one that had bedevilled British society for over half a century, and had risen by 169% since 2010, was to be solved in less than seven days. Rooms were duly found in hotels, student accommodation and hostels, and by 26 May the MCLG declared that 90% of rough sleepers had been found accommodation.
The decision of the state to take responsibility for all homeless people’s welfare (including those with ‘no recourse to public funds’ and those immediately vulnerable to homelessness) is unprecedented The 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act had enshrined in British law for the first time an obligation for local authorities to provide accommodation for homeless families and other vulnerable groups considered ‘in priority need’ (including those with health and mental health problems). The 1977 itself act was an inherently progressive piece of legislation – expanding the range of those to be given assistance and vastly reducing the arbitrary nature of local authority housing allocation that had often led to discrimination against BAME groups. However, it explicitly excluded single homeless people, leaving them obliged to compete for accommodation on the open market. Subsequent amendments to the act have not altered its initial premise. Furthermore, not only had the act done nothing for single homeless people, it also may have perpetuated the conceptions of a division between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ inherited directly from Victorian Poor Law legislation and characteristic of British attitudes since the Elizabethan period’s response to the problem of ‘sturdy beggars’. Arguably this enabled a conceptualisation of those remaining homeless as largely responsible for their own destitution, rather than as victims of poverty and inequality.
Street homelessness continued to rise after the passing of the act. It grew rapidly in the 1980s, before reaching a peak in the mid-1990s when some 2,000 people were sleeping rough on the streets of London on any given night, and two shanty-towns had grown up in London at Waterloo’s Bull Ring and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Although homeless statistics are notoriously unreliable and contested, when New Labour took office in 1997 some 10,000 people were believed to be living on the streets across the UK, and the sight of bodies bedded-down for the night in shop doorways was a commonplace for the residents of any city in the country.
By 2010 such sights had once again become familiar on Britain’s streets, but it is important to remember a brief interregnum, when numbers of rough sleepers fell rapidly (between 1999 and 2001), and continued a gradual decline, reaching their lowest number on record in 2010. The Labour Governments may not have reversed the Thatcherite housing reforms, or made any substantive effort to increase the supply of social housing, but they did take rough sleeping seriously. It was one of the three first priorities of Blair’s newly formed Social Exclusion Unit, and the Rough Sleepers Unit (RSU) from 1999 oversaw a well-resourced and extensive programme on a national scale. In many ways Labour’s programme was a model of the ‘evidence- based policy-making’ much trumpeted by New Labour, and was enacted following the principles of the much-derided ‘Third-way’. Outside expertise was brought in (Louise Casey, its first head, had been deputy director of Shelter), to shape a programme by forming ‘compacts’ with the voluntary sector who provided the services, and was subjected to ‘modern management techniques’, with measurable targets set and payments made in proportion to successful outcomes. Crucially, this involved steps to genuinely integrate the cross-departmental working that was necessary to address the problem. Labour’s programme also vastly improved hostel and day centre provision, refocused homeless agencies working practice on rehabilitation and resettlement, and perhaps most importantly of all, ensured its long-term viability by granting the (ring-fenced) ‘Supporting People’ monies to Local Authorities to enable those housed to maintain their tenancies.
The relevance of this to the current situation is that despite Luke Hall’s edict, the problem of homelessness has not been miraculously solved. When lockdown ends and the hotels and student accommodation providers return to their normal business models, the homeless people residing in them will have to move on. It would require an act of extraordinary political callousness to pitch those people back on to the streets they had just escaped, yet if appropriate provision is not resourced now this will inevitably be the case. Moreover, many homelessness people have additional support needs, and without focused and intensive support many will fail to cope and fall back into homelessness. Whilst New Labour’s programme has been criticised for its coercive and conditional elements, its impact on the voluntary sector and weaknesses in providing move-on accommodation and access to substance misuse services, the pre-existence of a comprehensive model for addressing street homelessness could be of vital importance at a time when the state needs to move at speed.
Indeed, some moves in this direction have been made by the government. Louise Casey has been recalled to oversee the Conservative homelessness programme to head a newly established ‘taskforce’–a recreation of Blair’s RSU with a different title but the same leader. Furthermore, expertise has not been lost from in the voluntary sector, despite an estimated cut of £1 billion in government support for homelessness since 2010. Homeless Link’s (the umbrella group for homeless agencies) briefing document, Next steps to end rough sleeping for good after COVID-19, calls for long-term revenue funding to enable the support needs of ex-homeless people to be met (pace Supporting People), cross-departmental collaboration and greater accountability co-ordinated at a national level (pace local authority consortia and national oversight under the RSU), and a ‘fully-costed transition plan’ (pace the funding levels of the Labour administrations). They also propose the repeal of some of the most egregious aspects of benefits legislation passed since 2010 and call for investment in affordable housing.
Louise Casey has referred to the current situation as an ‘extraordinary opportunity’ and clearly it is. At a time when so much of the future is uncertain, it is clear that unless a comprehensive policy programme is instituted rapidly, the shameful sight of rough sleeping will return to our city streets, with all the suffering that implies, within a matter of weeks. It is time not only to dust off the lessons learnt from RSU programme, but to reconsider the historical reputation of New Labour’s achievements in office, achievements that have been so obscured from our view by the thick dust of Iraq and the wisdom of ‘light touch regulation of the financial sector’ that they have remained hidden from view.
David Christie is a Midlands Four Cities (M4C) AHRC funded doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham working on street homelessness and the Labour governments of 1997-2010. Before returning to academia he spent ten years running projects for rough sleepers in London and Bristol in the late 1980s and 1990s.