In 21st century Britain, I’m sure that we can all agree that housing of some form or other is an essential human need. Despite this, we see a growing housing crisis and increasing homelessness of all forms across the country. Contrary to popular (and recently publicised) belief, elective rough sleeping is not a ‘voluntary choice’ and does not evidence rampant profiteering from locals and tourists. Instead, growing rough sleeper numbers evidence the lack of a right to local authority support, and the increasingly under resourced voluntary sector picking up the slack. Whilst we may cling to the assumption that if one is homeless, then someone in the council, government, police or social services has to take responsibility and offer shelter, in reality this is not the case, and many presenting to local authorities as homeless have no right to support. 

In part, herein lies the issue – legislation that cannot amount to the right to housing. In the UK, people homeless or threatened with homelessness have the option to present to their local authority, where, in order to be eligible for state support, a household must be deemed to be in ‘priority need’, usually as a result of there being children in the household, or a household member being classed as ‘vulnerable’. If this is the case, it becomes a local authority duty to ensure suitable accommodation is made available to the household, but if this application is refused, households must wait 21 days or demonstrate significant changes to circumstances before applying again.  

The Homelessness Reduction Act, coming into force this spring, extends the duties of local authorities in supporting those at risk of homelessness, but does not close the gap in terms of supporting all of those at need, as it still permits the distinction between a homeless person with ‘priority need’ and those without. Whilst the HRA will repair some of the holes in the effective safety net of statutory homelessness services, Local Authorities are flagging the difficulty that they expect to face in funding these now mandatory wider services.  With a backdrop of rapidly spiking homelessness, it is clear that greater efforts must be taken to halt rapidly rising rough sleeping numbers. Whilst the voluntary sector is stepping in to bridge the gap, this too is under resourced, with shelters reportedly turning people away due to oversubscription.

Perhaps the time has come, then, to stop lobbying for wider coverage of statutory duty, and greater funding for advice to the homeless, and approach the problem differently. Under article 25 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, ‘everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care’. In addition to this, article 22 asserts that ‘everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security’. In 2012, the International Labour Organization made Recommendation 202, advising nations to ‘establish and maintain, as applicable, social protection floors as a fundamental element of their national social security systems’. Whilst the UK, of course, has a social protection floor in the form of national insurance and the benefit system, the ILO also advised, crucially, that social protection schemes must ensure ‘universality of protection, based on social solidarity,’ and this is where we’re falling down.

In allowing exclusivity in our homelessness services, the UK shamefully overlooks some of the most vulnerable in our society. What is more, this challenges individuals’ basic human needs and puts many at significant risk – the life expectancy of homeless individuals is significantly lower than the national average. This exclusivity runs in conflict with our human rights, with social solidarity, and with our basic common sense. Those who experience homelessness for three months on average cost the NHS £4,298, mental health services £2,099 and the justice system £11,991. This is in contrast to the cost of a successful intervention cost of an average £1,426.

As we move forward into 2018, let’s stop asking for slightly better services to support our homeless population. Let’s champion common sense, compassion and recognition of fundamental rights, and hold those in power to account in their responsibility to deliver for people experiencing homelessness.