I am not quite old enough to remember “Cathy Come Home”. As a student in London in the late 1970s, I do remember people sleeping on the streets – under Waterloo Bridge, in shop doorways along the Strand and in city squares. It was part of living in London: you expressed pity, maybe put a few coins into a paper cup and by and large, turned a blind eye.
One only needs a passing acquaintance with Charles Dickens’ novels to appreciate that homelessness in London has forever been with us and probably always will. However, it was once said (by whom Google wouldn’t disclose) that you can measure a decent society by the number of people who beg and sleep on its streets.
When I first worked for a housing association exactly 25 years ago and Shelter was 25 years old, street homelessness was still in evidence across Britain. A new government arrived in 1997 with an avowed intent tackle this inequality and reduce rough sleeping by two-thirds of current levels. They had some success, though not as much as they claimed. According to DCLG figures in December 2005, there were 459 rough sleepers recorded in England on any given night, more than one-third less than in 1998.
And now? Let the statistics speak for themselves: 3,569 rough sleepers were recorded in England in 2015, more than twice the number since 2010 and up 30% since 2014. In London, the rough sleeper rate increased by 126% between 2010 and 2015. Outside London the situation is far worse. Rough sleeper rates increased by 80% in Birmingham and 63% in Manchester in just twelve months. Regionally, the highest rates of increase over this period were in South West England (41%) and East of England (37%).
We knew this of course…or did we? I certainly didn’t know the facts, that is until I read an article posted on LinkedIn recently by Peter Nicholls called “Homelessness in the UK; the National Elephant in the Room?” He is neither social housing professional nor housing analyst, but a former estate agent who by his own admission describes himself as a “card carrying capitalist”. He was simply shocked by the number of people he observed sleeping rough while travelling around the country during the festive break most of us have just enjoyed. Shocked enough to do some research on Shelter’s website and bring it to our attention.
Yes, there is effort being made and some improvements have resulted. According to CHAIN, rough sleeping has marginally declined in the twelve months to September 2016. The “No Second Night Out” campaign launched in 2011 has had a discernible impact in London. But these initiatives are just chipping away at the margins.
Why in 2017, 50 years after Cathy and Shelter, is rough sleeping still a growing problem? All the usual excuses are trotted out: not enough affordable housing, not enough land, not enough money, not enough political will, to which I will add a further reason which in my view is the real one – not enough ambition.
Back in 2008, the Government announced its intent to end rough sleeping by 2012. It was a fantasy target – cynics said that it was related to the London Olympics, others that sleeping rough was in some cases a personal choice. It may have been ambitious but it was the right target. Reduce the number of people sleeping rough, not by 30% nor 50%, but altogether.
I had the privilege of working for three London housing associations over 25 years. During that time, they became exponentially wealthy. Moreover, the character of workforces in HAs has changed over time. The housing sector attracts remarkable, talented people with energy and initiative and masses of integrity. People who can solve problems in ways that we couldn’t have imagined in 1992.
Put together the combined resources of the G15, the 10 largest national organisations and the brightest and best people and, perhaps, rough sleeping will be confined to history; not in a generation, not by 2020, but now…Overnight.
Can we solve rough sleeping and street homelessness? Yes; we can!
© David Levenson, January 2017
David Levenson is the founder of Coaching Futures. For further information, please contact David:
 All statistics quoted were published in 2016 by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network, “CHAIN”