A seasonal use for the Dome, which shows that the blight of homelessness is still with us

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The Independent Online

The Millennium Dome has - at long last - been put to good use. Five years ago the great white elephant of south-east London, a monument to New Labour's hubris, welcomed the great and good to Britain's showpiece New Year's eve celebrations. But this year it is playing host to some of the most forlorn and vulnerable individuals in our society. Throughout this Christmas holiday, the vast, empty, arena will be converted into a shelter for the homeless. Some 800 rough sleepers are expected to make the trip to Greenwich over the next few days, where they will receive food, basic medical care and shelter from the cold.

The Millennium Dome has - at long last - been put to good use. Five years ago the great white elephant of south-east London, a monument to New Labour's hubris, welcomed the great and good to Britain's showpiece New Year's eve celebrations. But this year it is playing host to some of the most forlorn and vulnerable individuals in our society. Throughout this Christmas holiday, the vast, empty, arena will be converted into a shelter for the homeless. Some 800 rough sleepers are expected to make the trip to Greenwich over the next few days, where they will receive food, basic medical care and shelter from the cold.

The organiser of this event, the charity Crisis, believes the Dome can be more than simply a giant hostel. It has established a training fair, where the destitute can take part in workshops in, among other things, plumbing and IT. Those who attend will also have the opportunity to sign up to year-round courses. Commendably, Crisis wants this Christmas to be an opportunity for its guests not just to get out of the cold, but to improve their lives.

The fact that it is still possible to find people sleeping rough in the streets of Britain, a country which boasts the fourth largest economy in the world, is a disgrace. Anyone who clings to the belief that homelessness is some sort of "lifestyle choice" ought to consider the dangers such unfortunate people face every day. A survey by the London School of Economics has found that homeless people are 13 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the general public. Half say they have been victims of a violent attack at some point. About the same proportion have been robbed of what meagre valuables they might once have possessed. But few go to the police, since the constabulary often takes a dim view of the homeless. More common than physical attack or robbery is verbal abuse. Contemptuous put-downs such as "get a job" or "parasite" are two particular favourites. It all adds up to a rather miserable "lifestyle".

The Government certainly deserves credit for the way it has confronted the issue since coming to power in 1997. The Rough Sleepers' Unit has been remarkably successful in reducing the number of people on the streets each night, in no small part through its progressive approach to helping people to overcome drug dependency. But there is a risk that all this good work could be undone.

Figures released by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister earlier this month, compiled from local council records, show that there are 400,000 "hidden homeless" in Britain, living in hotels and B&Bs. While it is true that most of them are in accommodation of reasonable quality, this cannot be considered a long-term solution. Hidden homelessness may not be "a Cathy Come Home situation", as John Prescott has put it, but it is a serious problem, nonetheless. Children living in these circumstances (of whom there are 100,000) suffer disproportionately from health problems. They also have difficulties pursuing their education. And adults in temporary accommodation are often only one crisis away from being back on the streets.

The problem is due to the dilatory way local and central government have gone about building social housing over the years, especially in London. But the Government's response has been to cut its funding for schemes to help to settle people permanently. Its goal of reducing the number of homeless families by 30,000 over next 13 years is woefully unambitious. The National Housing Federation and the homelessness charities warn that it could lead to disaster.

There are other reasons to fear that the scourge of homelessness could return. The Government's "tough" policy on asylum-seekers is pushing an increasing number of refugees into near-destitution. Our over-stretched prison service is cutting back on resettlement programmes; as a result, many people leave prison only to end up on the street. We are in danger of going back to a less civilised time. The battle against homelessness is by no means over.

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