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The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated something which many people already suspected – that with the right level of intervention Britain’s rough-sleepers could be brought indoors. The effort to bring these people inside during the pandemic was enormous, but this was because the numbers of people sleeping rough across the UK were so devastatingly high. Now that this extraordinary effort has been undertaken, key figures including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Dame Louise Casey, appointed by MCHLG to head the English homelessness taskforce in response to Covid-19 have suggested that this could be the moment when rough-sleeping in the UK is ended for good.
As ever, when we talk about rough-sleeping from a place perspective it is vital to highlight the, hopefully obvious, fact that rough-sleeping is first and foremost a human tragedy and a national shame. Rough-sleeping is, however, also a place-based issue – one that manifests itself, understandably, in our town and city centres and as the number of rough-sleepers has risen over the past decade the issue has risen up the agenda for people charged with looking after those town and city centres. FOR Cardiff are leading the call with our representative body ATCM in calling for this to be the moment for governments across the UK to act on this issue for good.
Reported figures vary but it is clear that thousands of people who were previously sleeping rough have been granted temporary accommodation during the lockdown. With the responsibility for homelessness being devolved across the UK nations there will doubtless be varying approaches to this and it is heartening to see that the UK Government (acting on behalf of England) and the Welsh Government have announced significant funds to continue the positive steps taken so far. Whatever specific direction individual national governments take in the future one thing is clear – nobody who has been brought in, should be sent back out.
We believe that political and policy responses to issues as important as these need to be driven by data rather than partisan ideals and interventions which are proven to keep people in homes and off the streets need to be adopted. The data is clear that supposedly ‘radical’ solutions are those which have the best outcomes for the people involved and for the public purse – in particular we support governments across the UK in the adoption of the Housing First principle as opposed to piecemeal responses. It may seem unusual for a place management organisation to take a stance on homelessness policy but this has become an issue so prevailing in our town and city centres that it would be impossible not to become involved.
We know of course that responsibility for homelessness is devolved to Wales but firmly believe that in this instance what applies at Westminster applies in Cardiff Bay. This is a once in a lifetime chance to do the right thing. We also recognise the fact that some of the vital factors that contribute to rough-sleeping, and homelessness more generally, are not controlled directly in Wales – in particular the UK government’s control of welfare spending needs to be redirected in a way which actively prevents the development of homelessness. The continued roll our of universal credit for example, despite serious and well-founded concerns about the impact this policy has on homelessness is an issue of great concern for us.
Beyond interventions to assist people currently rough-sleeping the UK nations need to look to the likely coming recession and how this will impact on the number of people sleeping-rough and otherwise homeless across the country. Currently we know that all stakeholders must prepare for a sharp rise in rough sleeping as a result of the economic shock of the pandemic however we refuse to accept this as inevitable. The policy causes of rough-sleeping and homelessness must be addressed now to prevent this devastating surge. In recent years the increasing rate of homelessness nationally has caused local authorities to re-prioritise their spending on people who are currently homeless and away from initiatives that prevent homelessness. This system creates a devastating feedback loop which results in ever higher numbers of homeless people and rough-sleepers. We need preventative measures now more than ever to protect society’s vulnerable.
Place based work to rehouse, rehome and re-integrate people who find themselves sleeping rough is vital and admirable but it must also be understood that earlier intervention is more preferable. One silver lining, during this bleak year, is that we have a unique opportunity to rewrite policy ensure we have a strong framework for preventing homelessness. Let’s take it with both hands.