On March 11th, It was announced by Rishi Sunak that £643m of funding will be used to build homes in order to tackle rough sleeping. This comes after the government released figures last week stating that the number of rough sleepers has apparently declined; although it was pointed out by a number of news outlets and charitable organisations that this is a much trickier statistic to state for certain.
On the surface this seems a step in the right direction to tackle a widespread problem. Though the rough sleeping figures are difficult to qualify with certainty, this is a huge sum of money committed to try and reduce the number of those that don't have a permanent home or even a roof over their head each night. Hopefully, this commitment will be honoured by Boris Johnson’s government.
There are two key strands to tackling the issue of rough sleeping. The first is the practical element of housing, which requires governments and organisations to build or acquire properties to house rough sleepers or those experiencing other forms of homelessness. The second strand requires a widespread change of perception amongst the general population.
This article started by specifically talking about rough sleeping. This is the most visible form of homelessness. However, it is only one version. Sofa surfing, sleeping in cars and temporary forms of accommodation all qualify as homelessness. Frequently, homelessness and rough sleeping are equated as the same issue but the reality is that rough sleeping is only one form of homelessness amongst many.
It follows therefore, that many of us could know someone who qualifies as homeless and be totally unaware of it. Research by Crisis indicates that 62% of homelessness is hidden. This is the first misconception that needs to be changed amongst the majority of the population if we are to truly tackle the problem.
Pathway Housing Solutions, a not-for-profit organisation working across the East Midlands, is currently undertaking a research project into hidden homelessness around Nottingham and is using this to raise awareness of the issue. By making it clear that the issue transcends the people we can immediately and obviously perceive as homeless, we can also increase an awareness of the extent of the problem.
If people are unaware of the high numbers of people who are living as the hidden homeless, they cannot truly understand how deeply within our society the problem runs. By increasing awareness of hidden homelessness and support for the cause, more pressure can be applied on government and councils to find a solution.
The other key perception that needs to be changed in order to push for a solution to the crisis is manifested in a misunderstanding of what brings about homelessness, and particularly, rough sleeping.
I am sure that many of us have heard the line that all rough sleepers are merely addicts who have brought about their own situation through drinking, drugs, or gambling. Though these are factors that can contribute to homelessness, it is untrue that these are the only reasons for an individual ending up on the streets. Even if this is the case as well, surely we ought to reach out to those struggling with addiction and help them, instead of condemning them?
Misguided stereotypes about rough sleepers as dangerous addicts can lead to a dangerous response that either apathy amongst the general population or something far more aggressive. On the former, it is much easier to ignore a very difficult and emotionally wrought problem if one continues to believe the untruth that rough sleepers have brought their own situation upon themselves and ‘deserve’ it.
There are members of the public whose response is actively abusive: Crisis found that rough sleepers are 17 times more likely to have been victims of violence and are 15 times more likely to have suffered verbal abuse than the general public.
We need to manage the dehumanisation of rough sleepers and remind the public that these are ordinary people who have fallen into a horrible situation. Whether through addiction, job loss, domestic abuse or any number of many causes of homelessness, it is an issue that can potentially affect anyone and everyone deserves a helping hand. Shelter is listed as one of Maslow’s basic human needs, so why do so many seem to turn away when they see those without it?
I am not intending to generalise that the majority of the British public either do not care or are abusive towards rough sleepers, however we cannot deny that there are several problems and misunderstandings surrounding the issues of homelessness and rough sleeping.
By educating people on how they can help those in these situations (whether it is through volunteering in shelters, soup kitchens, or donating to charities and housing associations), as well as by challenging misguided stereotypes, we can continue to try and tackle what is in an increasing problem.
Ending homelessness and rough sleeping requires systematic change from those at the forefront of government and those who can begin to allocate more funding to social housing and permanent homes for those in temporary accommodation or who are rough sleeping.
We can do our bit as members of the general public by increasing education about the issue and spreading awareness of methods of tackling the problem. It may be idealistic, but hopefully if we continue to change people’s minds, one step at a time, we can continue to put pressure on the government to commit to ending homeless and enact real change.