Today the Homelessness Reduction Bill was debated in Parliament. This is a cross-party Bill with the aim of reducing homelessness by requiring local authorities to house people who, under current legislation, do not currently qualify for council help.
Since being elected for Bermondsey and Old Southwark 18 months ago, not one week has passed without housing problems topping the list of issues people approach me about. Every surgery it is the primary reason people come to see me - whether in my office, in local libraries, community centres, mosques or churches. I have helped thousands of people with housing problems and the number continues to increase sadly.
Many housing problems I encounter relate to repairs or overcrowding, but homelessness has creeped steadily up and is becoming more and more visible locally, especially around Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge station as well as at the Elephant. With further Government cuts to councils, individuals (through tax credits and benefits) and other economic challenges, there is every indication that the issue will get worse.
Under the Coalition since 2010 and current Tory Government, it has become increasingly easy for people to find themselves on the streets. In my own casework, I've seen some really tough individual instances including:
- One 60 year old woman had her hours reduced at work as an agency cleaner, could no longer afford her rent and was evicted from private accommodation;
- One young woman who originally fled home at 15 told me she had turned to finding a different partner in a bar every night to avoid sleeping rough; and
- I've even seen Home Office delays to visa and other applications contribute to families ending up homeless.
Unstable employment including zero hour contracts, soaring private rents, welfare cuts and benefit changes are all contributing factors in homelessness and the Government is doing little to tackle these underlying problems.
Southwark Council is doing more than is required under current legislation. Despite the Government cuts, our local Labour council has: built more council and affordable homes than any other council; introduced schemes to tackle rogue landlords; and spends comparatively more on tackling homelessness than other boroughs. Southwark spending has doubled in recent years on temporary accommodation - although homelessness applications have also doubled since Labour left office nationally.
Since the Lib-Dem/Tory Coalition formed in 2010, across the country homelessness has doubled; there has been a 45% cut in Supported Housing to help some homeless people; and there has been an elevenfold increase in ex-forces rough sleeping in London alone.
Southwark Council have had to deal with the brunt of this increased pressure whilst simultaneously having their budget cut by £200 million. My Lib Dem predecessor, Sir Simon Hughes, was a Minister in the Coalition Government which oversaw these cuts and contributed to the problem by supporting eye-watering welfare cuts and even policies like the bedroom tax which haven't helped. The Coalition also cut funding to build more affordable homes with Lib Dem support.
By contrast the last Labour Government, 1997-2010, created one million new home owners; saw two million homes being built; and contributed to what Crisis and Joseph Rowntree have described as an ‘unprecedented decline’ in homelessness.
Whilst I welcome the aim of the Bill today, I am also keen to see the Government provide sufficient focus and resource to tackle homelessness. I am also concerned that not enough is being done to tackle the root causes of homelessness. It must not fall down solely on council’s and local charities to address the issues created by Government failures.
National and local charities deserve credit for their work to tackle the problem. One fantastic example is the locally coordinated Robes Project which organises an annual sleep out at Southwark Cathedral to raise funds to feed and house rough sleepers in London. More info on the Robes Project is available online at: http://www.robes.org.uk/sleepout/
I slept out last year of taking - and will be joining everyone again this year on 25th November. All are welcome for the sleepover or just to donate online here please.