David Smith, CEO of Oasis Community Housing, shares what he would like to see the next government do about homelessness.
First, let me give you some good news. Homelessness does not have to be as it is currently. We are used, sadly, to seeing people facing homeless on our streets, and to hearing about the increasing numbers (currently 250,000 people) who are in temporary housing – most of whom are families.
It’s easy to become so used to the situation that we think it can never change. But it can and it must. Homelessness should be rare, brief and not reoccur. Together, we can certainly achieve that.
Within the next two years, we’ll have a new government, and whichever party is in office, tackling homelessness needs to be one of their highest priorities.
Parties of all stripes are going to want to see a rise in GDP, a recovery from the current slump. That requires everyone to be able to reach their potential. That can’t happen if homelessness and trauma mean that you are in a sleeping bag under a bush on a roundabout.
A recent report that we commissioned from Northumbria University found that some 94 per cent of people facing homelessness have suffered trauma. It is trauma that leads to their homeless situation, and homelessness is itself traumatic. Yet, less than half of the people we surveyed had received the specialist help they needed to tackle that trauma.
If we can tackle the trauma, we can stop the cycle of homelessness, where people find themselves back on the streets or in temporary accommodation. Without doing this, the underlying causes of a person’s homelessness are never dealt with and the cycle continues.
We should care about people facing homeless for altruistic reasons and for selfish ones. Altruistically, people have inherent worth. We are all our brother’s keepers. We care for people because what is happening to them could be happening to us.
Economically, the implications of homelessness to the country are vast: one study of the homeless population of roughly 2,000 people in Newcastle and Gateshead found it cost public services a collective £132 million just to support this group for one year. Not to mention the lost economic contribution each of these people could be making that would benefit both them and our economy.
We have both financial and moral reasons to tackle homelessness. It is, quite simply, the right thing to do.
So, what do we want to happen? Let’s look at the big picture first. We need to improve the welfare system, to prevent people slipping into crisis in the first place, to provide proper funding support for people when they’re in crisis, and to seriously up our game on social housing building by doubling it to enable them to move out of a crisis situation.
The housing crisis and homelessness are on a continuum. As you look at each part of that continuum, both the causes and the solutions are connected.
It is a major crisis for our country. We should be ashamed of that, in the sixth largest national economy in the world. The focus on short-termism has, arguably, helped keep this crisis from being resolved.
The next government must tackle this crisis. Even before the pandemic, homelessness was through the roof, with some 300,000 people facing homelessness: 4,500 of them sleeping rough, a situation that has seen a 141 per cent increase since 2010.
But homelessness is also a very personal issue. These are all individuals with hopes and dreams, just like us. We need to understand what happened to them and to help them to face and ultimately overcome the traumas that they have experienced.
How do we do this? The next government must establish minimum standards for the delivery of trauma-informed homelessness support services. It needs to develop and roll out a national trauma-informed training programme for frontline homeless support staff.
It should ensure that local authorities only commissioned services that that are trauma-informed, psychologically-informed and person-centred, remembering that this is about people, not an issue.
And finally, it will need to develop dedicated mental health pathways for people experiencing homelessness that acknowledge and reflect the challenges posed by the chaos of homelessness and its impact on trauma.That is a long game, but if tackled nationally and locally, could mean that whenever someone becomes homeless, it isn’t for long and doesn’t reoccur. And that would give us a greater chance of breaking down barriers to opportunity and increasing our national growth. In amongst that we could also do a powerful thing, changing individual lives for the better. That surely is a vote winner.
David Smith is CEO of Oasis Community Housing which works in the North East of England, London and Peterborough.