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The roots of the rough sleeping crisis

Emergency shelters opened up across London this weekend as the mercury dropped and the risk of death for those sleeping rough on the capital’s streets rose.

The government last month announced more funding for shelters and specialist support in cities across England. It is implementing a £100m rough sleeping strategy.

There are signs that politicians have belatedly woken up to the national rough sleeping crisis.

But have they woken up to the causes of it? The government’s own figures suggest the numbers sleeping rough have more than doubled since 2010, rising to almost 5,000 in 2017.

And the estimates for 2018, due later this month, are expected to show another sharp increase.

The response of the housing secretary, James Brokenshire, has been to argue that rough sleeping is a “complex” issue. And in one sense this is obviously true. As charity workers and other experts attest, rough sleepers tend to have overlapping and interacting problems, from family breakdown, to bereavement, to mental health issues to drug and alcohol addiction.

Yet there’s also a danger of over-complicating things. While the individual cases are idiosyncratic, the sharp overall rise in recent years suggests a common factor.

“Sanctions” for those claiming jobless benefits who fail to cooperate with the state’s efforts to ease them into work have been around for decades. But the coalition cranked up sanctions in 2012, making the penalties for non-compliance more severe.

And these sanctions are likely to be responsible, to a significant degree, for the surge in both homelessness and rough sleeping across the country.

A study by Sheffield Hallam University researchers in 2015 found around a fifth of the people using homeless services had been put in that position directly because of these new benefit-withholding penalties.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary, described the jacked-up sanctions system as a way of ending “the something for nothing” culture.

The six-week wait for new universal credit claimants is a decision that could only have been made by those ignorant of the cash flow problems it was likely to cause

But a comprehensive independent evaluation of the regime last year found they were ineffective at getting claimants into work and were more likely to push people into “avoidable crises relating to worsening mental and physical health, poverty, hardship, unmanageable debt, insecurity or eviction”.

The conviction that what jobseekers needed was more stick was, to put it mildly, out of touch.

Speaking of out of touch, last month the former chancellor George Osborne dismissed the suggestion his austerity policies had been in any way responsible for the spike in rough sleeping.

Yet the National Audit Office noted in 2017 that the government has not launched an official evaluation of the impact of its welfare reforms, more broadly, on homelessness. Perhaps ministers are afraid of what the conclusion would be.

A broader lesson is the danger when administrative changes impacting the lives of those who are extremely financially vulnerable are taken by those who are, themselves, not financially vulnerable, or have scant experience of poverty.

As with the six-week wait for new universal credit claimants – which Iain Duncan Smith now says was a stipulation of the Treasury – this is a decision that could only have been made by those ignorant of the cash flow problems it was likely to cause.

America last week witnessed the swearing in of the most diverse Congress in the country’s history in terms of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender.

These kinds of diversity among lawmakers are undoubtedly important. But, as events closer to home demonstrate, diversity of financial background is also valuable.

There is, of course, no guarantee that policymakers and MPs with direct personal experience of the details of the benefits system would not inflict the kind of unnecessary damage we’ve seen in recent years.

But it’s a line of defence we should welcome, in any kind of weather.


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