Socialist Worker

Exposing the hidden homeless

by Theresa Bennett
Issue No. 1779

Tony Blair attempted to spread New Labour style festive cheer last week by declaring the success of the government's Rough Sleepers Unit. The unit claims the number of people living on the streets has been reduced by 71 percent over the last three years.

It counted less than 550 people as sleeping rough last month compared to 1,850 people in June 1998. So does this mean that the homeless are cheering New Labour? Blair said last week, 'There was no clearer evidence that something was going wrong with our society than the increasing numbers of people sleeping on the streets of our cities.'

But homeless charities accuse New Labour of cheating to show a false reduction in the numbers. Campaigners say the Rough Sleepers Unit tried to remove people from the street on the night that the count took place. Only people physically bedded down were included in the count.

Philip Burke, chair of the Simon Community homeless charity, and Chris Holmes from Shelter want an inquiry into the unit's figures. Hostel The Simon Community found 224 people sleeping rough across eight London boroughs on 2 November. That night there were only five bed spaces available at 50 hostels in central London.

The scandal of the sheer number of people sleeping on the streets forced the government into having a strategy over homelessness. A few people may now have found a place in a hostel. New Labour has shown it will effectively abandon the remaining rough sleepers by saying they 'have made lifestyle choices and therefore don't require help'.

But there is a deeper crisis over housing that the government wants to bury. Many people across Britain are too poor to afford a home. Some are trapped in bed and breakfast accommodation. More people are forced to pay extortionate rent because their wages are too low to buy a home in the booming property market.

There are an estimated 400,000 people living in temporary accommodation, hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation, shelters and squats. Newspapers like the Sun often present bed and breakfast accommodation as like that of luxury hotels.

But it is mainly one or two rooms for a whole family, including babies and pensioners. Some landlords demand that families leave the room during the day, so they are forced to walk the streets in search of somewhere warm. There are rarely cooking facilities, so families have to spend the little money they have on takeaway food.

Families can be forced to live in such 'temporary' accommodation for months and even years before they are finally offered social housing. Around 139,260 people who need housing will be turned away by local authorities this year.

Some will have to find the money to rent in the private sector, where the average rent for a two-bedroom property in London is £125 a week. Those who are lucky enough to get council accommodation or a housing association place will still face high rents, despite these homes supposedly being geared towards the low paid.

The average weekly rent for two bedroom accommodation in London is £58.10 for a council tenant and £65.20 for a tenant with a registered social landlord. House prices are way out of reach for most workers. In 120 out of 171 local authorities across England and Wales houses are too expensive for those on the average male wage.

Women on average earnings can only afford a mortgage in Stoke, Hull, Middlesbrough and parts of Wales. Lack of affordable housing means a change in someone's life like a bereavement, a relationship breakdown or a mental illness can mean they become homeless.

With a recession looming many workers fear losing not just their job but their homes as well. The official figures for homelessness have risen by 12,000 since New Labour was elected in 1997.

New Labour has appointed a member of the House of Lords as housing minister. Lord Faulkner had the cheek to say last week, 'There is not an endless supply of money to build new homes.' Landlords will rake even more money in. They have already gained from the Tories' deregulation of rents.

Many tenants complain that their landlord is quick to kick them out if there are any delays in the council paying housing benefit. Yet New Labour wants more of the free market madness in housing with its plans to sell off all council housing. The rise in homelessness is a symbol of all that is wrong with New Labour.

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Article information

Sat 15 Dec 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1779
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