10th October 2016
We all need a place to call home
see below for updates
As series of shows under the moniker Musician Against Homelessness is making me think.
Making me think about what homelessness is. To my way of thinking it is just that: being without a home. Earlier this year I wrote extensively about housing, particularly about housing policy in my book Housing: Approaches to Policy. I also wrote a piece called What is a home? It is that aspect of the topic on which I want now to focus.
Tens of thousands of people are homeless in today’s Britain; and of course in the rest of the world as millions of migrants leave their homes fired by the hope of finding a new place to live in peace and perhaps also prosperity or at least well-being.
A home is a place that provides safety and security. Homes provide the substance of everyday living but above all they should give people a place that is safe, a place in which they can feel secure. Sadly our country neglects that aspect and provides only accommodation for millions of people who are forced to rent because they cannot afford to buy.
Safety and security are essential to an ordered and settled way of life; they are not secondary consequences of having a place in which to live; they are the bedrock of human existence. If accommodation is not safe and if it is not secure then it is not a home. It is simply temporary accommodation and that is what millions of our citizens are forced to accept because the Government has failed them. The UK government has failed to understand that housing is an a state of crisis – a crisis created by government and one which it shows no signs of being able to deal with.
Owning a home – usually the most secure form of living – is now a privilege of the few rather than a right of the many. More and more people in Britain are renting because they cannot get on to the property ladder. This is not good for our society; it is not good because the government has set the rules to favour landlords and has provided inadequate security of tenure for tenants. I won’t reiterate what I have already said about the government failure to create a satisfactory policy on housing.
What I do want to focus on is why having a home is so important to the lives of everyone. A home is what provides us with safety and security; it also provides us with the basic amenities of living – a place to cook food, somewhere to sleep undisturbed, a space in which parents can bring up children; a space in which people can keep their treasured possessions – the things that matter to them; a place that provides comforts that aid rest; a place in which to carry out the daily routines of human life. For some, it is also their place of work. A home is where people can entertain their friends and family; a place where some keep can keep their pets; listen to music; read books; pursue an education; enjoy entertainment… a home is essential to living a civilised life.
Why then is it that the Government treats rented accommodation with such scant regard? It is just because so few politicians live in rented property? Can they really be so unaware of how important rented tenancies are when so many thousands of their constituents must pay rent and bring to them a constant flow of problems arising from the problems they inevitably have with their landlords? Is it because politicians have an ideological obsession with council housing? Is it because politicians have had the concept of new build housing drilled into them as being the right solution to the housing crisis?
Yes all of these things are true. Too often politicians tend to base their policy beliefs on their own personal experiences and if that does not included renting in the private sector then they are only aware of it through what they find in their surgeries. That is not however what being a professional politician is about. Is it not the right to represent people.
The scale of homelessness in Britain has been underestimated because it has not been correctly defined it in the first place. Homelessness is not just having no where to live; it is also about not having the right standard and quality of housing. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in accommodation that does not provide them with a home – either because it is not safe, not secure, lacks basic amenities of living, is available to them only for a limited period of time; is unhealthy; fails to meet their needs where they are old or disabled; provides insufficient space to people who have children; is in a locality or neighbourhood which is not right for them; is not under their personal control because they have to share it other people (often their parents) owing to lack of opportunity to find somewhere better. A home is a space in which its occupants should be able to organise to their own requirements for living (within certain limits.) There are a lot of cultural differences in home-making but the principles are always the same. Most people live in family groups but there are special circumstances where people live alone, for what ever reason – whether through choice or through personal situations. I have already written about the substance of what a home is and should be. in my article What is a home.
In my previous article I touched on choice – asking ‘can we choose where to live?’ Choice of home depends on financial status and income to a large extent. It also depends on government policy and the extent to which law and practice allow choices to be made or not. The way government controls housing – if in fact it does – will either encourage choice or restrict it. It is the way that national and local governments implement their policies on housing that will enable people to have a choice or deny them opportunities. The poorer you are the less choice you have – both in housing and in most other areas of existence. That is due largely to the market; a market that the government is unwilling to regulate.
If we want to have a home that is suited to our circumstances; a home that provides us with the essential elements described above, particularly safety and security, then we must have choice; we cannot find the home that we want, the home that suits us, if our ability to choose is limited, if opportunities are denied that should be allowed. It takes government policy to expand and protect choice.
Housing policy in this country is in a state of crisis; successive governments have failed to make policies at both national and local levels – that can impact the current quantity, supply, quality and distribution of housing; homelessness is increasing; access to the right kinds of housing is diminishing; affordability of housing options is not increasing.
If the authorities that control the housing market in this country are to make any real impact on this crisis they must begin to work on the real world; the world in people actually live; disengage themselves from their own personal circumstances and work with the statistics that are in plentiful supply. They – the various levels of government that make policy and control its implementation – must grasp what it means to have a home and what a home is for the millions of their constituents and voters who are in need of one. They must have a clear sense of what a home is and what it means to have one.
What does the world say about homelessnesses?
Having written the above, I searched on the Internet for articles about ‘homelessness’.
I looked at the website of Shelter, the organisation that provides help, advice and support to people who are homeless. On a page headed ‘What is homelessness’, I read that
You may be homeless if you live in unsuitable housing, don’t have rights to stay where you are or you’re sleeping rough.
The page went on to advise:
Even if you have a roof over your head you can still be homeless, if you don’t have any rights to stay where you live or your home is unsuitable due to severe overcrowding or other reasons.
You might be entitled to help as a homeless person if you are temporarily staying with friends or family or staying in a hostel or night shelter. Even if you have a home, you could be considered homeless if you live in very overcrowded conditions or in poor conditions that affect your health, or you’re at risk of violence or abuse in your home.
As Shelter points out, people become homeless for a variety of reasons; they refer to young people leaving care, offenders leaving prison, women who are expecting a baby, those seeking asylum or who are refugees.
They are include people who are claiming benefits or living in a low income. I would say that having to depend on benefits and having an income that is lower than the average does not of itself create homelessness though of course is if frequently a contributory factor for many people. Having insufficient income to pay for the housing you are currently in, leads to eviction if rental payments are in arrears or, as I discovered recently, if the landlord decides to sell the property or increase the rent to an unaffordable level. Homelessness spirals out of control where governments fail to protect tenants and do not want to make public expenditure available to intervene in the housing market. Doing so has many unintended consequences – the cost of helping people faced with homelessness increases; housing benefit payments go up; dealing with other problems such as criminality, drug addiction and mental health leads to increased public spending which could have been avoided in the first place. Not spending sufficient money on affordable and suitable housing is a false economy and leads to increasing demand for public services.
As the Shelter website points out, you don’t have to be sleeping on the streets to be considered homeless. There situations in which people are homeless even thought they have somewhere to sleep but where that accommodation is inadequate, temporary, unsafe and in fact there are many complicated situations in which people find themselves that may lead local authorities to regarding you as being homeless or about to made homeless. A lot of this is however discretionary; it is up to the processes adopted by a council to decide whether a person is homeless and, if they are, whether they can be helped.
Practice varies widely throughout the country and national government largely leaves it up to the local authorities to make their own arrangements and set their own levels of provision for people who apply to them for housing or housing advice. In many ways that is best; local people know their own area and what is feasible and the conditions of housing supply that exist in their local area.
The problem that we have is that central government create the problem and then expects local government to provide the solutions. Without providing the resources to do the job properly.
Some of the documents I found in my search drew attention to work, to jobs, to enable people to have the money to meet their housing needs. Well, that would seem fairly obvious. When I looked at this issue I brought in transportation; in fact I argued that three things are inseparably linked: employment, transport and housing. They are all linked together and intertwined to the extent that it is impossible to make improvements in one without making connected improvements in the other two. That is true, in my view for the majority of people. For others there are added issues to do with mental health, disability, discrimination, domestic violence, vulnerability, age, literacy, many challenges and needs that are not being met that make their situation more difficult to copy with.
The statistics about housing and homeless in the UK are stark and are getting worse. Despite the blandishments of senior politicians, the government is not moving in the right direction. We see this right across the party political landscape. Politicians might say the right things but the problem is they do not do the right things; and as long as this continues our country will continue to suffer the consequences of the housing crisis.
A news item on the BBC website reported on a statement released by the charity Shelter; among other things the item said:
More than four in 10 homes in Britain do not reach acceptable standards in areas such as cleanliness, safety and space, housing charity Shelter says.
Each of the five elements in the standard is measured according to certain criteria – for example, the essentials of “space” include having sufficient bedrooms for the household and space for the whole household to spend time together in the same room.
Other aspects included having outdoor space, and enough space for children to study and adults to work.
The five elements
Affordability: Factors cited included how much was left for essentials, savings and social activities after paying for rent or mortgage
Decent conditions: Words like “safe”, “warm” and “secure” were among the words used by the public to describe what makes a home meet this criterion
Space: Adequate space was felt to be crucial for wellbeing, especially mental and social wellbeing
Stability: Stability was often described as the extent to which people felt they could make the property they lived in a “home”
Neighbourhood: Living in an area where people felt safe and secure was considered particularly important. People also wanted to be close enough to work, family and friends and the services they need
Nearly one in five, or 18%, of homes failed the criteria for decent conditions, with renters twice as likely as homeowners to live in places which fail on this element of the standard.
On stability, one in four private renters felt they did not have enough control over how long they could stay in their home.
Shelter has called for stable rental contracts that last for five years and protect tenants against unaffordable rent increases.