Politicians reacted with shock and sadness to the news that a homeless man was found dead on February 14 at Westminster tube station, by the back entrance to the Houses of Parliament.
It has been reported that the man, who was Portuguese, had been staying in one homeless shelter, but had outstayed the maximum time allowed there. So he was sleeping rough while waiting for another space in a shelter elsewhere.
The graphic, first-hand encounter with the actuality of homelessness has prompted calls from politicians for tough action to tackle rough sleeping. Little has been revealed of the immediate circumstances of this man’s death, but he is not the only homeless person to die on the streets. A study for the homelessness charity Crisis found that 1,731 homeless people died in England between 2001 and 2009.
In 2017, there was a 15% rise in the number of people sleeping rough in the UK – and Westminster was no exception. In autumn 2017, Westminster was the local authority with the highest number of rough sleepers in England – 217 people.
Complex lives on the margins
Politicians calling for further action should reflect on the failure of recent policies to prevent rough sleeping. For instance, short-term prisoners are still discharged to “no fixed abode” despite the 2014 Offender Rehabilitation Act, which set up Community Rehabilitation Companies to support all prisoners on discharge, including help to secure accommodation.
My recent research in Nottingham revealed that persistent rough sleepers still face a complex set of needs. Rough sleepers who spent at least 10% of their nights on the streets in 2016-17, or who slept rough for part of the time during at least three out of the last six years, were more likely than other homeless people to need support for problematic substance use, mental ill health and offending. They were also more likely to have spent significant time in prison, and to have been evicted from accommodation or excluded from or refused services.
People disabled by negative experiences find themselves ill-equipped to negotiate what they encounter as an increasingly hostile system. That system currently offers a limited range of options in available hostels or affordable private rented accommodation. Even access to these options can be further thwarted by restrictions faced by homeless migrants on welfare benefits, or by accumulated debts or the strictures of a benefit system that might make begging appear a more rewarding source of income.
The very homelessness legislation that was set up to respond to the needs of homeless people merely erects further barriers to rough sleepers. It fails to recognise them as “vulnerable” and denies them a connection to the local authority to which they are applying for assistance – even when they may be fleeing violence. Some people are also declared “intentionally homeless” if they refuse offers of accommodation out of fear.
People often ask why some rough sleepers reject help when it is offered, and the popular conclusion that is often drawn – even by some politicians – is that persistent rough sleepers are sleeping rough out of choice.
But sleeping on the streets is rarely the only problem that persistent rough sleepers have. Often they have a complex set of needs and experiences of domestic violence and personal victimisation. Many of them carry a baggage of negative risk assessments by people such as hostel staff that might have arisen from past anti-social behaviour, accumulated indebtedness, eviction, rejection, disqualification and disentitlement. Such assessments are recorded and shared among agencies locally, thereby barring people from whatever accommodation and other services that might be on offer.
Meanwhile, those without such a reputation often refuse offers of accommodation out of fear of who they might encounter, either in a hostel or in a particular neighbourhood where they would be housed. Or they may abandon such offers when their fears are justified by experiences of violence, exploitation or intimidation. They may also attach greater importance to a valued relationship with a partner or friend than to an offer of accommodation in which that person cannot be included.
In April, the new Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 will come into force. It brings new obligations on local authorities to prevent and relieve the situations of all homeless people, not just those in priority need and with a local connection. The government says it wants to eliminate rough sleeping by 2027. If politicians want to be true to their word, they must ensure local authorities have the resources to respond effectively to those who find themselves with no alternative to a life on the streets.