Homelessness in the UK is an increasing contagion. It is something that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore as the demand for homeless shelters rise. According to the homeless charity St Mungo’s, one in ten people have been homeless at some point in their lives. Perhaps surprisingly, 20% of these people are women. What must be stressed is that sleeping rough is not the only instance of homelessness, since by definition, the word ‘homeless’ refers to a person without a home. Therefore, a homeless man or woman could, in fact, be “sofa surfing”, or in temporary accommodation, but these places are certainly no place they can call home.
It is perhaps because women are less likely to be seen on the streets than men that they are falling through the net of homeless services. However, this does not mean that they are any less susceptible to homelessness than their male counterparts. Frighteningly, St Mungo’s have reported that women are far more reluctant to enter homeless services than men, which is an issue I feel must be addressed. The crux of the issue appears to be that many of these women have experienced domestic abuse, which may incite a fear of entering a mixed hostel where such maltreatment could recur. It cannot be ignored that many homeless shelters are designed for men, since there are a higher percentage of homeless males in the UK. As a consequence of this, members of staff seem to be less trained in dealing with issues which are often more prevalent in women, such as self harm and eating disorders. Although many homeless services are now beginning to address this by introducing women-only spaces in hostels, it is an issue that certainly needs more attention if we are to tackle homelessness.
One of the most infuriating issues for me is that many people perceive homelessness as a ‘choice’. I struggle to understand how people still believe this amidst the current housing crisis that is beleaguering Britain. This crisis is the result of housing benefit caps and increasing rent prices, and it is absolutely not a choice. There are no alternatives for those who cannot afford to recompense the surging demands of our government. Although Local Authorities have an obligation to give temporary accommodation to those without a home, many people are rejected for not exploring all opportunities of support, such as hostels, or because they are not deemed a priority. Why should this be the case when there are thousands of landlords who have spare rooms to rent across Britain? Russell Brand has recently brought this to light in his recent campaign, which calls for more affordable housing in the UK.
Brand’s support of tenants of the New Era Estate in Hoxton, London garnered considerable support after US investment company Westbrook Partners planned to evict and double the rents of dozens of residents. Thankfully, the tireless efforts of campaigners were not in vain, and a reversal of fortunes was brought about, resulting in New Era being sold to Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation, an affordable housing group which has promised to keep rents at current levels for the next year. Such reversals of fate, however, are not commonplace and similar corporate developments and subsequent evictions often pass beneath public radar. Only last week, Manchester City Council announced their decision to cut a daunting £3.4 million worth of grants from its voluntary sector, which includes homeless shelters and housing advice services. This is audacious, given that the voluntary sector is one that needs our help the most. To add insult to injury, many councils are also inaugurating anti-homeless devices such as benches that are divided by arm rests, and anti-homeless spikes to their streets, in an attempt to reduce the number of rough sleepers. As well as being incredibly inhumane, this scheme is preposterous because it does not tackle the root of the issue, it simply prolongs it. Eventually, this quandary will become harder to ignore, as unemployment and extortionate rent charges seem unlikely to subside any time soon.
So what can we do? Firstly, we need to face up to this issue before it is too late, since it is an issue that many people choose to disregard, either out of fear or ignorance. Petitions such as this one are particularly useful, since they require little exertion and are an effective way of bringing issues into the public domain. We can also facilitate the system that already exists by donating to homeless charities such as Shelter and Barnardo’s. It is likely that there are many homeless shelters providing an excellent service in your local area, so why not contact them to see how you can get involved? Soup kitchens and Rucksack Projects are particularly important at this time of year, given that Christmas is fast approaching, so your help would be greatly appreciated. Most importantly, we merely need to recognise and acknowledge the homeless. So, if you pass a homeless person in the street, whether male or female, please do not pretend that you haven’t seen them, even if you have no money or food to give, simply smiling or saying hello lets a homeless person know that they are a valued member of society. For these are people who deserve to be helped.