Defining the problem: How do we count Britain's homeless?

Rough sleepers in London. Image: Getty.

For the thousands of people who are sleeping on the streets or are in temporary accommodation, winter is one of the hardest times of the year. Being able to provide relief during this period depends, at least in part, on understanding how many people are affected by homelessness – and who they are.

Unfortunately, that’s not a straightforward matter.

In the UK, a person is legally defined as homeless if they have accommodation but can’t reasonably be expected to occupy it, or if they don’t have any accommodation at all. This definition covers a broad range of circumstances – from those who can’t afford to pay rent, to those forced to leave home, for whatever reason.

But the first thing to know is that there’s a big difference between the number of people who the state recognises as homeless and how many people actually are. This is known as the distinction between the “statutory” homeless, and the “non-statutory” or “single” homeless.

The “statutory” homeless are those who apply to local authorities as homeless, and are accepted as such. People are only accepted if the council deems that they are eligible for housing support, or can be classified as being “unintentionally homeless” or in “priority need”. Information on statutory homelessness is readily available. All local authorities are required to report on the number of statutory homelessness applications received (and “acceptances” made) to the government on a quarterly basis.

In England, between April and June 2015, 13,850 households were accepted as homeless – an increase of 5 per cent compared with the same quarter in 2014. Few of these households will have been without a roof over their heads: rather, their circumstances can be considered an indicator of housing stress, as a result of relationship breakdown or over-crowding, for example.

“Single” homelessness refers to individuals without dependents, who are not entitled to accommodation from local authorities. Some of these are visible on our streets – in autumn 2014, the official rough sleeping estimate was 2,744, up 14 per cent from 2013. But most remain out of sight – “hidden” in bed and breakfasts or squats and on the floors and couches of friends and family. There is no effective or robust mechanism to monitor “single” homelessness, so these people are largely absent from government statistics. 

Experiencing homelessness

A comprehensive dataset is also lacking on the needs of homeless people. Countless surveys and other analyses (for instance, of the client records of those accessing hostels) indicate that single homeless people tend to be male. They also suffer from multiple disadvantages: with low levels of educational attainment and histories of employment in low-skilled and low-paid occupations.

The city looks different for a homeless person. Image: Adele Irving/author provided.

The single homeless are also more likely to have a criminal record than the general population, and have higher incidences of physical and mental ill-health, addictions and a lower life expectancy. While this information is useful when it comes to commissioning support services, it masks significant nuances in the composition of the homeless population. It also risks perpetuating a view of single homeless people as antisocial, dangerous and “other”.

Two recent projects carried out in Newcastle-upon-Tyne have sought to challenge these perceptions. The first – called Imaging Homelessness in a City of Care – used a simple mapping exercise to explore in detail the rich life histories of 30 single homeless people. The second – Sounding Off – used a combination of interviews with homeless people and those who interacted with them, together with recordings in the field, to develop an interactive sound-walk, offering insights into the life histories of seven rough sleepers.

The projects demonstrated the diversity of the participants’ early life experiences and pathways into homelessness. Some had experienced a lifetime of exclusion: their pathway into homelessness appeared almost inevitable. Others had led largely “normal” lives until adulthood, when a significant event – such as job loss or relationship breakdown – triggered a sudden pathway into homelessness. In this respect, the projects reinforced the notion that anyone can fall victim to homelessness – including those with no history of disadvantages.

Of course, participants made many references to the behaviours that we stereotypically associate with single homeless people, such as begging, substance misuse and street dwelling. But these acts can often be explained as strategies for survival, rather than “antisocial” behaviour. Indeed, it’s even possible to interpret them as displays of creativity and resourcefulness needed to negotiate challenges that the housed public may struggle to even imagine.

The people involved in these projects highlighted their personal experiences of joy, hope, sadness and pain – and referenced a range of activities which form part of everyone’s daily life, such as eating, sleeping and having relationships. So although it’s crucial that the state finds ways to count rough sleepers and “sofa surfers” as homeless and address their needs, it’s also important that our society starts to see the single homeless in a new light. They are fully emotional beings, with relatable needs, desires and identities, who also happen to be experiencing some of the most difficult living conditions in the UK.The Conversation

Adele Irving and Oliver Moss are senior research fellows at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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