Homelessness in England triples under austerity | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 27.08.2018
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Homelessness in England triples under austerity

It is estimated that some 300,000 people in England are homeless. The number has tripled since the Conservative government’s tough austerity policy began. But a new law is aiming to prevent the problem before it arises.

"Sticky situation, and I got kicked out. So, I came here and started the hostel life," says Brogan. She is sitting on a fluffy sofa. The sun is shining through the typical English bay windows into the lounge of the hostel for homeless young people. The organization that runs it, Roundabout, offers a home to 27 of them in Sheffield.

The charity Shelter estimates that there are 300,000 homeless people in England. Since the Conservative government's tough austerity policy began in 2010, the number has risen sharply. Now the government is also focusing on the problem.

The Roundabout hostel in Sheffield (DW/Erik Albrecht)

Roundabout says it helps more then 150 young people every day

The government is counting on more prevention

In mid-August, James Brokenshire, Minister of Municipalities and Housing, presented a legislative initiative. The goal is that by 2027, no one should have to sleep on the street.

Since April, municipalities have been required to offer assistance the day a lease is terminated. Hospitals, prisons and job centers are obliged to refer people directly to social services if there is a risk of them becoming homeless.

With the "Homelessness Reduction Act," the government is aiming to keep people housed by means of timely intervention.

Read moreStreets of London hit by rise in homeless sleeping rough 

Homelessness has risen sharply

The Conservatives have been under pressure on this issue for some time. Homelessness is no longer limited to London with its chronically inflated property market. Last year, Labour politician Andy Burnham won the election as mayor of Greater Manchester with the promise to take up the fight against homelessness.

Since then, he has, among other things, donated 15 percent of his salary for this purpose. Across England, 60 percent more people are living in emergency shelters than in 2011, and the number of people sleeping on the streets has more than doubled.

"MPs went home to their constituencies and found that people across the country were talking about homelessness. So, it's one of these problems that people are talking about everywhere, both in the cities and towns, but also in the shires and the small towns," says Jon Dean, who is researching the subject at Sheffield University.

Andy Burnham (picture-alliance/empics/L. Cameron)

Burnham donates part of his salary to combat homelessness

Hardly any money for the fight against homelessness

"It was really by using austerity as a way of trying to solve the economic crisis that this problem got exacerbated," says Dean. "But the new law is not very radical." He admits that it does offer help to more people, whereas only the weakest used to receive support. "But we don't always know what quality that advice from local authorities is going to have."

Dean is particularly sceptical about the funding. The government has allocated £72 million (€79.5 million; $92.5 million) for the next three years, spread over several hundred municipalities. "The amount of money behind it is a tremendously small amount of money. When you start doing the maths on that, that is a tiny amount of money."

Dean fears that in some cases, the already financially strained municipalities will have to contribute money from their own budgets to meet obligations under the new law. In addition, he says, it was the Conservative government itself that created the problem in the first place through its austerity policy.

Rough sleepers in London (DW/A. Frymann Rouch)

London has thousands of rough sleepers every night

Austerity policy has exacerbated the problem

Dean sees the reasons behind the current situation primarily in the cuts to social welfare and housing benefits. "So, the very hard sanctions that were brought in as part of austerity in order to get the welfare budget down to reduce the deficit did have a huge impact on rising levels of homelessness."

Anyone who misses an appointment at the social security office or job center loses part of his or her social assistance. In addition, charities complain that in many regions of England, rents have risen more sharply than state housing subsidies.

Standard rental contracts in England expire after one year. This has become the main reason why many people end up homeless. Since 2011, the number of people losing their homes has tripled.

Read more: Poverty, homelessness on the rise despite German affluence

Not enough social workers

In Roundabout's Sheffield hostel, few of the 27 young people have rented an apartment before. But they, too, are feeling the effects of the Conservatives' austerity policy. Many come from socio-economically deprived areas of the city.

"All the youth workers have gone out of those areas, and the kids have done what they wanted," says Rose Parchment, the hostel's director. The few social workers who did not fall victim to the austerity policy were mainly dealing with cases of abuse, she says.

"These guys don't come under that; they are children in need, but actually someone has to take some time with them and let people grow up in a safe environment. And that is a bit gone really." Parchment tries to do just that: provide an environment where young people are allowed to make mistakes while trying to find out what they want to do with their lives.

Read more: Homeless in Germany's financial hub ordered to pay fines for sleeping rough

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Rose Parchment (DW/Erik Albrecht)

Parchment: Everybody deserves somewhere to live

Lack of social housing

Thanks to Roundabout, Brogan is now educating her peers in schools about homelessness. She hopes that this will help her get an apprenticeship training position. The 18-year-old would prefer to work in nursing care, she says. "But that's difficult."

But even if her plan works out, finding an apartment will remain a challenge, Rose Parchment fears. "We want people to get council housing because it's a longer-term place to live, but there is not enough stock available." The only alternative would be the private housing market with all its uncertainties. "I think everybody deserves somewhere to live," says Parchment. "But it is getting increasingly harder."

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