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Paying the price for policies past

The causes of homelessness are many and varied: the product of a complex and tangled web of often disparate and seemingly disconnected social issues, but these strands come together – or not – in the world of housing.

Of course, housing providers cannot solve all the world’s problems, but in the context of the country’s housing affordability crisis, the resulting pressures tend to squeeze out those at the bottom of the housing pile. Understandably, there is growing concern about the issue as more and more people find themselves neither able to buy nor rent.

Bill Randall has written about the housing world for thirty years. He was also for five years the chair of Shelter’s National Housing Aid Trust, which ran the organisation’s national housing aid centres, and he has worked on the boards of a number of housing associations. He is currently serving as a Green Party city councillor in Brighton, where he sits on the housing committee.

He said: “A lot of people who are homeless have mental health problems, have been in the armed forces, or have drug and alcohol problems. So homelessness is quite often a manifestation of other problems. It’s true to say that some people become homeless completely by accident, like losing job or some financial disaster, but most people at risk are poor and vulnerable.”

For many there is a lack of a safety net to fall back on, even something so basic as a network of friends or family. While charities do good work to provide support for those who run into problems as a result of drugs and alcohol, and similar areas, it is fair to say that many others fall through the cracks. For those who find that mishap or misfortune cast them out in the unsheltered world of homelessness the first port of call is often the local uthority, but as Shelter’s Caroline Davey said in the main feature, without the housing available authorities’ options are limited. Therein lies the impact of housing policy past, present and future on the ‘hidden’ crisis of housing.

The introduction of Right To Buy in 1980 has stripped the national stock of social housing by nearly two million properties, according to Shelter. Furthermore, it says, the number of social rented homes built has fallen from 42,700 a year in 1994/95 to around 21,000 a year in 2002/03. The housing boom has enriched the wealthiest, the organisation says, but pulled the ladder beyond the reach of the poorest families to trap them deeper in poverty. Inevitably, this has the potential to spill over into homelessness, especially in view of the historic lack of social home building. Randall added: “The single biggest way in which [the problem] has been affected has been with the dramatic fall in the numbers of council and housing association homes built over the last 25 years. At the same time, of course, we’ve also been selling council homes – which in many parts of the country are irreplaceable. The income from the sale of council homes now stands at £45 billion: it is the single biggest privatisation.”

Of the money raised, 25 per cent of that is allocated for reinvestment in housing, but the Treasury collects the remainder.Given that this money is raised from social housing, it begs the question why more of it isn’t ploughed back in, so what does the Treasury do with it? “Well,” Randall said, “they fight wars in Iraq, for instance.” A controversial comment, certainly, but for many at the sharp end of navigating the nation’s housing and homelessness problems, it illustrates what might be perceived as skewed priorities. He added: “The Government has taken all this money out of social housing and housing generally. It should put more back in. I would say at least that we need a target of 100,000 [social] homes a year. I think the Government really does need to make housing a priority. They talk about housing as a priority, but they’ve not really made it so.”

What of the Government’s plans to build thousands of new homes? He said: “The Government’s housing programme is only just beginning to match the programme of the outgoing Conservative government in 1997 in terms of new homes built. It’s taken them a long time to catch up.” Homelessness is not the only social blight waiting for the Government to catch up; Randall voices the opinions of many campaigning around the ill-effects of scarce or inadequate housing, that the social – and economic – returns of tackling it head on will reap greater rewards in the years ahead. Speculate, indeed, to accumulate: a lot of people are waiting for a chance to go home.

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