Tens of thousands of people around Britain are homeless this winter, including as many as 85,000 children. Those having to sleep rough in the streets are just the tip of the iceberg.
There were more than 2,100 families in emergency bed and breakfast accommodation in September, the highest level for a decade. Many report feeling unsafe.
Still more are in hostels, squatting, or staying on friends’ sofas.
There is no shortage of housing. But not content with decades of undermining council housing, the government has now told councils that some homeless people are no longer their problem.
A change in the law from November 2012 allows councils to “discharge” their responsibility to house some people by pushing them into the private sector. This includes homeless single parents.
Newham council in east London is trying to do this to young parents currently housed in Focus E15 mother and baby unit.
Jasmin Stone and Rachel Blewitt live at the East Thames housing association run flats with their children Saffia and Ryan and 25 other young parents and their children.
They were told last summer that the unit is to close and that they would have to find themselves private rented accommodation and claim housing benefit.
Jasmin told Socialist Worker, “I’ve called so many letting agents but they won’t accept benefit claimants.
“The council just tells us to keep looking but I can’t find any more places to ask.”
There are 24,000 people on the waiting list for council houses in Newham—but the council only plans to deliver 60 homes in the current financial year.
The picture is similar elsewhere, with council “development” plans driven by profit rather than need.
One housing worker in central London explained, “When a block of say 20 council flats is replaced it will be with 45 flats.
That’s 20 council, five shared ownership and the rest will be sold off. “This is called development because councils can make huge amounts of money from it”.
Jasmin started a campaign which forced the housing association to withdraw the immediate threat to evict the families by 20 October. It also shamed the council into returning £41,000 it had cut from East Thames.
But the council said again last week that the parents will have to find their own private rented accommodation in London—or the council will find them somewhere outside it.
“It’s so stressful—I wake up every morning thinking I’m going to get a call today to be sent away somewhere I don’t know anyone,” said Jasmin.
“I’m past angry,” Rachel agreed. “We can’t be moving far away from our families when it’s so expensive to get back to even visit.
“It’s like we’re being punished for having children.”
Whose right is it to buy?
The Tories—and many leading Labour Party members—hate the idea of council housing with secure tenancies and controlled rents.
Margaret Thatcher brought in the “Right to Buy” scheme in 1980 to get rid of council housing.
Millions were sold off cheap and resold to private landlords. Once they were sold, councils were not allowed to use the money to build more.
Now the coalition has allowed housing associations to join in—and the selloff which continues to subsidise the private sector is speeding up.
Some 2,839 homes were sold off between July and September of this year, nearly three times the same period last year.
A quarter of those homes were in London alone.
Councils and housing associations have sold more than eight times more homes than they have bought or built since April of last year.
The myth of 'affordable' homes
The government has a serious problem—but it does not want to admit that the market cannot provide housing that people can afford. Under pressure, it launched an “affordable homes programme” in 2011.
New Tory housing minister Kris Hopkins boasts that 98,700 affordable homes have been delivered through it since it started, bringing them halfway to their target of 170,000 by 2015.
But their definition of affordable is up to 80 percent of open market rents—rents that few can afford.
For instance, a two bedroom flat rented privately in Walthamstow, east London, in 1994 cost £115 a month. If the value of the rent had kept pace with inflation, that would now be £193 a month.
In reality the same flat now costs £1,100 a month.
People suffer on the streets
Sleeping rough is a dangerous and traumatising experience.
People who sleep rough are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, according to research by housing charity Crisis.
At least 4,353 people began rough sleeping last year—a 13 percent increase on the year before. Rough sleeping has increased by 31 percent in two years.
But it is difficult to get completely accurate figures because people sleeping rough, especially women, often hide themselves away for safety and may be missed by outreach workers.
More people are without homes
Temporary accommodation was used to shelter 10 percent more people over the last financial year.
That’s according to an independent study by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
It found that bed and breakfast placements went up by 14 percent.
Rough sleeping went up by 6 percent across England and 13 percent in London.
Despite racist scaremongering about migrants, the increase was made up from both British and overseas nationals.
The rich hog the houses
The government is trumpeting its latest statistics which show that the last three months have seen the fastest rate of house building since 2008.
Some 117,110 houses or flats were started last year—mostly for the private sector.
But a whopping 1,769,939 people were waiting on housing lists.
And there are nearly a million homes standing “uninhabited”—not counting the quarter million or more empty second homes of the rich.