Innovative strategies will help combat rough sleeping

'Rough sleeping is as much about drug and alcohol problems as a hostel bed'
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The Independent Online

Exactly two years ago, the Government set out how at least two thirds of the people sleeping rough in this country would be helped to come in from the cold. This challenging target, that many never believed could be reached, has now been achieved. Importantly, some of our most socially excluded citizens have been helped to start a new life away from the streets.

Exactly two years ago, the Government set out how at least two thirds of the people sleeping rough in this country would be helped to come in from the cold. This challenging target, that many never believed could be reached, has now been achieved. Importantly, some of our most socially excluded citizens have been helped to start a new life away from the streets.

For too many years, long-term, entrenched, rough sleepers were passed by. The more difficult cases with complex problems often remained on the street. Previous initiatives focused too much on a bricks-and-mortar solution, without enough focus on the underlying problems of drug or alcohol addiction and mental health problems.

The new strategy was fundamentally different because it recognised that rough sleeping is more than about being without a home. It's about drug and alcohol misuse, mental health, loneliness, isolation and boredom. We not only needed to help people move away from the street, we also needed to help them rebuild their lives after they found accommodation. With independence comes equality, a realisation of an individual's potential.

Just as importantly, we had to stop people ending up on the streets in the first place. We needed to block the pathways to the street so that young people leaving care, and people leaving prison and the armed services did not end up in a doorway.

So, that's what we've done and the progress speaks for itself. The number of people sleeping rough has been reduced by more than two thirds. There are now significantly fewer vulnerable people sleeping in our doorways. Cardboard cities no longer exist.

Charities and local authorities up and down the country have made real progress – working harder and working better. Solutions have been found for most of the people who have been on the streets for years. We no longer walk past those who need us most.

But although today we now have a time where human beings do not sleep on our streets in vast numbers, we have to continue to ensure that people do not fill doorways tomorrow.

Our work to tackle homelessness is only just beginning. Too many families are bringing up children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation; over the next few years this must be reduced. We must improve the quality of social housing – by 2010 it should all be of a decent standard. We must provide more homes for people – 60,000 more should be built by 2003.

The Homelessness Bill – one of the first Government bills introduced, just the day after the Queen's Speech – is a symbol of the importance this Government attaches to tackling homelessness. Excellent work is already being done in some areas to prevent homelessness. But this must become the norm not the exception. By strengthening the homelessness legislation, all local authorities will now have new responsibilities to tackle and prevent homelessness.

We must all re-gear in the way we tackle homelessness. The Rough Sleepers Unit recognised that rough sleeping was as much about drug and alcohol addiction and mental health problems as it was about a hostel bed. In the same way, homelessness is as much about debt, domestic violence and tenancy breakdown as it is about having a house or flat. Over the last two years, we have made enormous progress with the most visible form of homelessness. Helping those people sleeping in our shop doorways or abandoned cars. While not giving up on those who are still out there, we must also look at helping those who may have a roof over their heads but are nevertheless without a home.

Lord Falconer is minister for housing, planning and regeneration

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