Most people living or working in Britain’s cities will have seen people sitting on wet pavements pleading “hungry, homeless, please help” – but homelessness isn’t just an urban issue. Beyond the city centres and the surrounding suburbs – in our cherished and heavily protected countryside – many people are living without a roof over their head.
The rural homeless are often invisible, difficult to reach, and constantly changing in number and location – which means the official number is underestimated by government and charitable agencies.
For the “lucky” few rural rough sleepers who happen to live near a drop in centre – such as the one run by Doorway, a charity for homeless people and rough sleepers in Wiltshire, south-west England – this can be a lifeline of survival.
But despite the presence of these centres, there is often a widespread reluctance by homeless people to live in hostels. Many value their privacy, preferring to sleep in tents, cars, sheds and garages, even outdoors, rather than share a hostel with people they don’t know or identify with.
There is also a stigma attached to living in hostels. Bedding down for the night in the back seat of car might feel more like self-determination – a cocoon from facing up to the harsh shared reality of being homeless.
Back in 2003, the Countryside Agency highlighted the nature of hidden homelessness in villages and country towns. Its State of the Countryside Report 2004 found that the number of homeless households in remote rural districts had risen by almost 30% in two years.
Though the report was more about young people with no prospect of a home of their own, rather than people sleeping rough under hedges or in barns, it still went some way to raise the profile of the many hidden homeless living in rural towns and villages.
For many, rural homelessness is the latest miserable phase in an already struggling existence – and can happen for many reasons: unemployment, relationship failures, alcoholism, drugs, mental health issues, a crisis in self-esteem, rejection. But beyond the personal problems that create homelessness, inadequate provision of homes in the countryside is a long-standing structural cause.
Since 2009 a rise in repossessions in the more heavily populated parts of rural counties has accompanied a growing number of people waiting for social housing – but the issue has been around along time before that. Since the end of World War II, rural housebuilding has been on a much smaller scale than in towns and cities.
In the last ten years, rural house prices have risen 82%, which is faster than many towns and cities. This is mainly due to the price of rural land, making it difficult for small builders to make a profit. Add that to a rise in middle class city dwellers swapping their urban lifestyle for a more rural affair, and it’s not surprising house prices in rural areas are too high for many of the locals.
Today Britain is facing an ongoing deficit in housebuilding that is failing those in housing need. This has been compounded by the demise of local authority housing – hardly any “council houses” are now built compared with the 1970s.
Even housing associations trying to make up the shortfall are being hampered by recent government decisions to give tenants the right to buy their home. Yet blaming “Thatcherite” housing policies does not really get to grips with the problem.
The bottom line is that our much-loved countryside is over-protected by town and country planning legislation which makes it difficult for enough rural housing to be supplied. The National Parks scrutinise each and every proposal for new builds on aesthetic grounds, with those decisions that are approved locally often successfully challenged by rural elites.
On top of this, strong sentiments against the onset of urban encroachment have been in existence since the interwar years, and are not going away anytime soon. As those deprived of rural homes find to their cost.
As the the rural homelessness problem grows larger, local authorities and voluntary agencies are struggling to cope, and untold stories of personal misery accumulate.
The fact of the matter is, young people growing up in the countryside need more housing. But the wider more complex problem of rural homelessness will not be solved by housing supply alone.
Many homeless people with mental health or lifestyle issues still need to be looked after – services which are often harder for people living in rural communities to access.
So while the countryside seen from the train or car window still looks beautiful and well-managed, beyond the view of the commuter or tourist the landscape conceals the frustrations of many people waiting for affordable housing – and worse a bitter harvest of destitution.