The Tories pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024. Will they?
Conservative MP says ministers have failed to grasp ‘crucial opportunity’ as street homelessness ticks up, not down
The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto promised something big: the party would end the “blight of rough sleeping” by the next election. At the time, then-PM Boris Johnson said homelessness “cannot be right” and pledged he would “work tirelessly” to end it.
Four years on, one of the key policies intended to get people off the streets is still in its pilot stage, more people are dying homeless than before, and the number of people sleeping rough is going up. Both Labour and Tory MPs say not enough is being done, with even Conservative housing secretary Michael Gove casting doubt on the party’s chances of ending street homelessness by the next election.
One Tory MP we spoke to believes the government bungled its chance by failing to keep up the momentum of its Covid-era anti-homelessness drive, Everyone In. But others in the sector believe the pledge was doomed from the outset.
Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, points to a string of government policies that she believes have forced people into homelessness and rough sleeping, in areas ranging from housing to migrants’ rights.
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“You’re never going to stop rough sleeping if you don’t deal with the housing stock shortage and the fact that migrants can now no longer rent somewhere or get a job,” she told openDemocracy.
The Thatcher government’s divisive ‘right to buy’ policy has cost Britain more than 1.4 million social homes, leaving tens of thousands stranded on waiting lists. Many die before they ever reach the front of the queue.
Turtle is also referring to rules such as ‘no recourse to public funds’, which stops those with ongoing asylum claims from working or renting in the UK, as well as the government’s failure to end so-called ‘no fault’ or ‘section 21’ evictions, which have left more than 48,000 households at risk of homelessness since the Conservatives promised to ban them in 2019.
Tory MP Bob Blackman, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending Homelessness, agreed the data was disheartening.
“At the moment, the figures are going in the wrong direction,” said the Harrow East MP, who sponsored the 2017 Homeless Reduction Act, which introduced a duty for local councils to prevent and relieve homelessness. “We need to take urgent action now to get us back on track to achieve what we said we’d achieve.”
The most recent government stats show the number of people sleeping rough in England has risen by 74% since 2010. The figure was highest in 2017 and fell in the years after, but crept up again last year. The true picture is likely to be even worse.
“I’m very dubious about the rough sleep counts the department does [using local council data],” Blackman told openDemocracy. “When they do it, do they actually cover everyone that’s sleeping rough? I think that there’s under-reporting.”
He believes the government “failed to grasp” a crucial opportunity during the pandemic, where rough sleeping was significantly reduced through the Everyone In policy, under which everyone sleeping on the street was supposed to be offered accommodation to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. The government claims 37,000 people were helped by the scheme, though figures at the time showed thousands were still sleeping rough, while the charity Shelter has said not enough information is available about how successful it really was.
“During the process of the Covid lockdowns, the Everyone In program got everyone off the streets,” said Blackman. “We proved we could do it. I think we’ve failed to grasp the opportunity of ending homelessness or ending rough sleeping for good. And now the rough sleeping figures are going up.”
Two policies were meant to be core to the 2019 manifesto pledge: Housing First and the Rough Sleeping Initiative. Housing First, which has been trialled internationally, recognises that safe, stable housing is the foundation needed for people to access support in other areas of their lives, meaning people are offered homes without having to jump through hoops first. According to charity Crisis, it is proven to end homelessness “for around 80% of people with high support needs”.
Housing First pilots are taking place across the UK and have been extended until 2025, but they are far from being implemented country-wide and have only helped a few thousand people. The last report published on Housing First was in 2020; the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) told openDemocracy there was no set date for a more current report.
The Rough Sleeping Initiative, meanwhile, allocates funding to local councils, charities and other organisations to spend on solving street homelessness. Up to £500m has been allocated until 2025, but many organisations in the sector say this is not enough.
Both the Museum of Homelessness and Blackman point out that rough sleeping is only one type of homelessness. At least a quarter of a million people – mostly families – are homeless in temporary accommodation like hostels and bed and breakfasts, often costing local councils hefty sums.
“Rough sleeping is terrible and it can be really hard to survive – no one should have to sleep rough,” said Turtle. “However, I think that there are really damaging effects of broader homelessness in the UK. The government is more likely to ignore that or not make policy for that, whereas they will focus on rough sleeping because it is visible.”
She added: “It’s about homelessness being messy and being in the way of the public realm. They don’t pay so much attention to the other forms of homelessness because they’re not so in the way.”
A DLUHC spokesperson told openDemocracy admitted there was “more to be done” to meet the rough sleeping target.
“That is why we committed £2bn to support the three-year cross-government strategy to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping,” they said.
“This includes the Rough Sleeping Initiative, which is providing up to 14,000 beds and 3,000 staff this year to areas in greatest need, offering tailored support to vulnerable people, including through access to accommodation; support through Housing First; and engagement with mental health and employment services.”
With local elections approaching and a general election set for next year, Labour has its sights on where the opposition has failed to stick to manifesto commitments.
Paula Barker MP, the shadow minister for homelessness and rough sleeping, told openDemocracy the Tories needed to “get an urgent grip on this crisis”.
“The Conservatives promised to end rough sleeping by the end of next year, but they are completely and utterly failing, with devastating consequences for thousands of families and children,” she said.
“Labour has called for emergency legislation to scrap section 21 evictions, an end to automatic evictions for rent arrears, and we have set out plans to build more affordable and social housing to get people into safe, secure homes.”
Florence Eshalomi MP, co-chair of the APPG on Ending Homelessness, echoed Barker’s words.
“The government oversaw rough sleeping numbers rising 26% in the past year,” she pointed out.
“This shameful rise represents many missed opportunities to take the action necessary to end rough sleeping for good.”
openDemocracy made multiple requests to speak to Felicity Buchan, minister for housing and homelessness.
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