Where did all the homeless people go?

Once they are given their opiates, they don't want to beg, burgle or prostitute themselves any more
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The Independent Online

This is the summer of liberal discontent. As Tony Blair sunned himself with right-wing billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, the centre-left defenders of Blair back home were crumbling. After a decade of insisting that Blair is more progressive than he looks, decent liberals like the novelist Robert Harris and Neal Lawson, editor of the New Labour journal Renewal, are in despair.

This is the summer of liberal discontent. As Tony Blair sunned himself with right-wing billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, the centre-left defenders of Blair back home were crumbling. After a decade of insisting that Blair is more progressive than he looks, decent liberals like the novelist Robert Harris and Neal Lawson, editor of the New Labour journal Renewal, are in despair.

They discovered that whenever they grasped for weapons to defend the Prime Minister's record, they found nothing but Sixties-bashing and increasingly deranged pronouncements from David Blunkett. Nobody can accuse Harris, Lawson or the thousands of disillusioned ex-Blairites across Britain of being closet Trots. This is a rebellion of the sane and the centrist.

There are days when I know exactly how they feel. I have a small file for whenever I feel that furious itch to burn my Labour membership card and vote Green. At the top of the file there are two words: Cardboard City.

The scores of homeless people huddled in boxes at the centre of one of the world's richest cities was an iconic image of Thatcherism. But how many people know that under the current government, the number of rough sleepers has been slashed by two thirds? Why isn't that considered an iconic component of the New Labour years?

In 1999 - the year Blair and Gordon Brown finally abandoned Tory spending plans - the Government began to plough £200m into lifting the poorest people in Britain off the streets. This whopping sum - more than some homeless charities were demanding - has made it possible to introduce a whole new approach to lifting people off the streets. The new Rough Sleepers Unit is in charge of Contact and Assessment Teams (CATs) for homeless people. It sounds jargon-heavy, but the reality is life-changing. Each individual is assigned a CATs worker who develops a detailed action plan for getting them into accommodation, dealing with their drug habit, and ultimately into work. They ring the hostels, they liaise with the GPs, they find them job training. Homeless people aren't on their own any more.

For many people on the streets, it is the first time in their lives that anybody has lavished this amount of care and attention on them. You remember all those figures about the "extra bureaucrats" employed by New Labour? This is what they do. Workers in CATs count as "pen pushers". Some pen. Some pushers.

And the extra cash for the homeless (raised by, yes, increased taxation, particularly on the middle class) buys even more than this. Once they are housed, the ex-homeless are given a Tenancy Sustainment Officer who helps to make sure they don't lose their new home. These officers have been so successful that the rate of tenancy breakdowns has fallen to just 3 per cent. And there's more: spending on social housing stock has increased by 250 per cent under New Labour. But how many of us know about these successes? In some cities, such as Birmingham, the number of people on the streets has been cut by 96 per cent.

Don't take the word of the government for these figures. Chris Holmes, the Director of Shelter, has welcomed these developments, explaining, "The numbers of people sleeping on the streets has reduced under this government, and every month people are moving off the streets and into accommodation. New work to support previously homeless people and enable them to stay in their homes is also extremely positive. The Government deserves credit for what has been achieved in such a short time-scale."

And the good news doesn't end there. The more I delved into how successful the Government has been with rough sleepers, the more I discovered that this has been made possible by a dense web of progressive policies that we never hear about. For example, a significant factor in lifting people off the streets has been the sensible - and almost entirely unreported - government decision to increase methadone and heroin prescription by more than 30 per cent. Rather than moralistically lecture opiate addicts and condemn them to a desperate life using unsafe, adulterated drugs bought on the streets, the Government has given them the drug their bodies desperately crave free through the NHS.

And what do you know - once they are given their opiates, they don't want to beg, burgle or prostitute themselves any more. They weren't living on the streets out of choice, as Tory ministers used preposterously to imply; they were doing it because they were using all their cash to feed their habit. The Government is slowly ending that cycle.

This, in turn, is only made possible by even more progressive moves. This extra prescription, for example, can only happen because there has been massive increased funding for the NHS. The Government's programmes to tackle youth unemployment, including the New Deal, have similarly had a knock-on effect. A quarter of homeless people are under 25 - so the near- eradication of youth unemployment under Blair to just 5,000 nationwide has led to fewer people hitting the streets.

And on and on it goes, a story of real, tangible progress. The British policy towards homelessness is being studied all over the world as a dazzling success story - everywhere, that is, except here at home. So no matter how disgusted I am by Tony Blair's policy on arms sales, his government's abuse of asylum-seekers or a dozen other awful acts, I am never tempted to dismiss him as basically a Tory. No Tory government would have done all this.

Of course there are still problems with homelessness. There will be 500 people on our streets tonight, and that's 500 too many. Some of them are there because of the Government's tendency towards cheap Blunkettry can counteract its benevolent side. The research shows that many rough sleepers tonight will be asylum- seekers cruelly denied benefits, and many others will be prisoners discharged for an overflowing penal system that is too pressured to provide proper rehousing services.

There remain - as the homelessness charity Crisis documented last month - 400,000 "hidden homeless" in Britain, who are not living on the streets but in temporary accommodation. These people are one crisis away from a cardboard box. The Government is now shifting its focus to them, and it brought down the number of families living in bed and breakfast last month by 5 per cent.

It is in the nature of progressive government that problems can be reduced but rarely ended. But that's no reason to argue - as some people do - that the "hidden homeless" in temporary accommodation negate the Government's achievements with rough sleepers. It's far better to be in a B&B than sleeping under a bridge.

The Government deliberately - and maddeningly - underplays its many good left-wing policies. This is because they are afraid of Britain's vicious and biased right-wing press - and because they underestimate the electorate's appetite for compassionate reform.

As a result of Blair's Trappist approach to his progressive policies, it is easier than it should be for liberals to want to make the Prime Minister himself homeless as soon as possible. Next time you feel the Blair-despair, find a homeless person - if you can - and tell him we've got a right-wing government.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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