Homelessness in the UK

About 650 homeless people have died on the streets of London 2013—2018.

Is this a challenge for Health and Social Care and our community initiatives in London?

Figures from the Office of National Statistics indicate that about 650 homeless people died on the streets of London from 2013 to 2018. At the same time news of the death of Gyula Rennes, a homeless Hungarian man, outside the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday 19th December 2018 comes as a rude awakening to our collective conscience as Londoners and as a challenge to Health and Social Care Services of all London boroughs and to directors of charitable community initiatives in this city.

(Evening Standard News 20/12/2018)

As someone who has been homeless in London himself on at least two separate occasions in his twenty—five years of living in London; as someone who has worked in the Health and Social Care sector for at least fifteen years serving in various Support Worker and later managerial capacities for various private and charitable organisations such as St Mungos, Hestia and St Luke’s; and as someone who set up a charitable community advocacy organisation and successfully represented people in UK Courts and Tribunals as well accompanied them to official interviews over matters such as social security benefits, family disputes, housing and employment law matters;

Uncle Sam says

Homelessness may have different meanings from place to place but generally and practically if you don’t have a dwelling place of your own to live in such as a house, apartment or flat, you are considered to be homeless. It may also include the circumstance where you move from place to place in friends’ homes sleeping on their couches as a temporary measure—called ‘sofa surfing.’

From a legal perspective, a person is considered homeless  if they do not have accommodation that they have a legal right to occupy, which is accessible and physically available to them (and their household) and which it would be reasonable for them to continue to live in.

The legal definition of homelessness expands the concept to include:

  • people who don’t have a roof over their head and sleep in public buildings and makeshift accommodation such as vehicles, underground subways, tents, tarpaulins, and shanty town structures made of discarded building materials and cardboard boxes.
  • Those with night-time residence in a homeless shelter, in a domestic violence shelter, or in long-term residence in a motel sometimes awaiting intervention or re-housing decisions from their various local authorities.
  • People threatened with homelessness. Generally a person is considered threatened with homelessness if they are likely to become homeless within 56 days.

Homelessness is caused by a variety of factors such as:

  1. Unexpected financial hardship as in sudden unemployment and bankruptcy that make people lose their homes;
  2. Mental illness or sudden illness leading to disability;
  3. Divorce, death and temporary or irreconcilable disputes in the family;
  4. Law enforcement action including police bans and court protection orders;
  5. Imprisonment;
  6. Landlords’ termination of tenancies and consequent evictions;
  7. Intentional homelessness.

Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 imposes a legal duty on local authorities to prevent homelessness and provide assistance to people threatened with homelessness or who are actually homeless. The Council conducts an assessment of each applicant to ascertain whether they can establish ‘habitual residence’ in the particular local authority and thereafter assess whether an applicant falls into the category of people classed as in ‘priority need of housing’.

People regarded as ‘priority need of housing’ include certain categories of household such as: pregnant women, families with children, and households that are homeless due to an emergency such as a fire or flood. These have priority need if they are homeless. Other groups may be assessed as having priority need because they are vulnerable as a result of old age, mental ill health, physical disability, having been in prison, or in care, or as a result of becoming homeless due to domestic abuse.

My view is that while homelessness cannot be totally eradicated from any society, it can however be minimised and the increase in homelessness in London is attributable mainly to:

  • Increase in population of the city without corresponding increase in new builds to accommodate new people. Thankfully through appropriate central and local government policy initiatives the various building companies and housing associations are now putting up structures in many places in London to alleviate this problem in the short term.
  • Quick-fix official solutions in the past which failed to address the actual root and recurrent causes of homelessness on a sustainable basis in the first place.

A man with a drug-addictive mental health problem which causes him to lose money on drugs to the point of inability to pay their landlord’s rent can only be prevented from homelessness by helping him with his drug problem in the first place on a sustainable basis.

Further, it is my view that no government can successfully lay claim to reducing homelessness by building homes alone if in the name of encouraging investment, employers are empowered to ‘hire and fire’ employees without consequence. The reason being that people who work need to be protected against unfair employment practices in order to earn incomes on a sustained basis to be able to pay their rents and continue to keep a roof over their heads.

  • Disconnect between various local government agencies such as the Police, the Courts, Housing Departments and Social Services of local Councils, local NHS et cetera with the result that sometimes each operating independent of the others takes hasty decisions and implements policies that render people homeless only to have the latter seeking accommodation in the corridors of the other agencies.

For example, and as happened to a client of mine a few years ago in the Wembley Area of London, it is my view that there is no point Social Workers hurriedly commencing a Section 47 Review of a domestic dispute and Police simultaneously barring an old, sick and infirm husband / father from a home without proper investigation of the dispute, without engaging community dispute resolution mechanisms only to discover from Housing Association records that the evicted husband / father is the main tenant on record for that property.

Apart from successfully defending him through the whole pack of lies his wife and now-regretful children had contrived against him, I encountered one of the most awkward situations any Community Advocate would prefer to avoid.

Because after his release from Police custody and during the two weeks it took before he was formally authorised to return to his home, the old man had nowhere else to go or live.

I was compelled through sheer human compassion to lodge him in my own home, feeding him, providing personal care for him and getting him dressed and ready twice a week for the ambulance to take him to hospital for dialysis. I am sure the Services people decided ‘I should put my mouth where my money is’ but in the name of justice for everyone I did not mind, and I still don’t.

  • Central and local government agencies not sufficiently and positively engaging with local community initiatives such as ‘Community Dispute Resolution’ mechanisms in churches, mosques, temples and other religious and non-religious settings. For example, the client mentioned above, was a parishioner in my church and working together with him we were able to bring deserved justice to his situation. He is dead and gone now and the children openly stated their regret at the way they treated their father but that is all history now.

Concluding this article, I say: ‘Yes, the fact that 650 homeless people died on the streets of London during the period 2013—2018 is not only a big challenge to our Health and Social Care services and our community initiatives; it is simultaneously a challenge to our collective community conscience as a human society and a genuine cause for bowing heads in shame.

We all pass by the homeless in public places such as train stations, roadsides and subways on our daily commute to work or other engagements and the more sympathetic among us would throw a coin or two at them. But that’s not enough and as this article shows, the problem of a homeless person may invariably be deeper than meets a passing stranger’s eye.

By Samuel B. Jonjo (Registered Manager)

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