The only way this government can reduce homelessness is by classifying a park bench as a studio flat

The homelessness figures began to shoot up, even by the Tories’ own estimates, in 2010. It’s a complete mystery why that should be the year

Mark Steel
Thursday 27 February 2020 16:57
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Rough sleeping down 9% according to Government despite figures suggesting more than 28,000 homeless across UK

It’s getting better and better. Now the government claims the homelessness figures are falling fast – and we only left the EU a month ago. OK, these statistics are disputed by homelessness charities and local councils and the Office for National Statistics and homeless people themselves, but what do they know about homelessness figures? In any case, no one is likely to take the word of a disreputable institution such as Shelter over trusted characters like Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith.

The ONS might be useful for some things, but you can’t expect them to know about issues outside their area of expertise, such as things that happen in the UK. Councils say true rough sleeping figures are about five times higher than the government’s own statistics, and charities claim it’s the highest ever. One charity, Glass Door, say the government figures don’t include 2,900 homeless people who depend on their temporary shelters, as the counting was done before these shelters were opened.

Next year the government should announce: “The number sleeping out at night, at the time we counted, was none. We did this count at two in the afternoon, but it was extremely thorough and we’re very proud.” Or it could reduce homelessness by classifying a park bench as a studio flat with original wooden features and outside space.

One reason the homelessness charities give for the rise is the bedroom tax, which essentially led to the eviction of people from their homes if they were on benefits and had a room in their home not in permanent use. But the government can’t be held responsible for this. How could they know a policy of kicking people out of their homes would increase the number of people without a home?

The bedroom tax was thought through in great detail, which is why one of its main supporters was Iain Duncan Smith. He lives rent-free in an eight-bedroom Tudor mansion, so understands the struggles of coping with extra rooms paid for by someone else.

There was also a jump in the homeless numbers when universal credit was introduced, as charities predicted. One shelter says one-third of people in their building are there because of the universal credit system, partly because it can only be claimed by computer.

To be fair, there’s no way the government can have foreseen this problem, of the homeless not having a computer. But now this is known, maybe they should replace universal credit with a system that relies on the homeless having a harpsichord.

The homelessness figures began to shoot up, even by the government’s estimates, in 2010. So it’s a complete mystery why that should be the year. The only major change in government policy was the introduction of “austerity”, promising austerity for people on benefits. It’s hard to see how that can have made life austere in any way, for people on benefits, so there must be some other reason from that year. Perhaps it was Spain winning the World Cup.

Another reason for a rise in homelessness is the long-term decline in provision of “affordable” housing. You might think property developers would have spotted this flaw in their business project, that most of the homes they were building were unaffordable. But maybe it’s something every industry takes a while to learn. Perhaps the confectionery business started off making the same mistake, producing Toblerones made of diamonds that cost £5m a bar, before realising they’d do better with chocolate that was more affordable.

But over the last 40 years, cheap social housing has mostly been sold off and we’ve managed the delicate trick of ending up with the greatest homelessness appearing in the areas with the highest number of empty homes. Across London – often viewed as the home of the metropolitan elite – there was a record 8,885 people sleeping on the streets last year. But they must all be poncey Southern homeless, on pavements outside Fortnum and Mason with manicured poodles on a piece of string.

Around 1,000 of homeless people are in the city centre itself, where there are 1,000 empty homes, worth on average £874,000 per property. So the solution is obvious: to get a bed for the night, all the homeless have to do is buy a property for £874,000. Yet more proof that the free market works for everyone, in the end.

But don’t worry, business will sort out the housing crisis. Perhaps the homeless could show some initiative and rent out their sleeping bags. They could set up an estate agents, showing prospective tenants round their patch, beaming: “A doorway by WH Smith has just become available – it has to be seen! It’s a two-minute walk from the nearest bin, boasting a variety of discarded chicken nuggets, westerly-facing so you get a wonderful sunset in the summer, and there’s an en-suite tree opposite you can use any time of day or night.”

Some of them could go on Dragons’ Den to promote their business venture, of walking through railway carriages making speeches about how they just need a few pence to get a couple of bread rolls, claiming they’re close to a sponsorship deal in which the Nike slogan is written on their polystyrene cups, and ask for £50,000 for a 10 per cent stake in the company.

If the thriving spirit of the nation that’s taken back control is put into action, the homeless can become the largest growing sector of the self-employed – even more evidence that, now we’re out of the EU, we’re thriving at last.

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