The government has a target to halve rough sleeping by 2022. There were an estimated 4,751 people sleeping rough last year and, last week, new stats were published showing a national fall of just 74 people. At that pathetic rate, the government will take until 2051 to meet their own target. That’s 30 years late.
This should be shocking, but it follows eight years of an increase in the homeless and rough sleeping population. That is a direct result of austerity measures inflicted by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition, continued under Theresa May including benefit cuts, sanctions and delays, as well as mental health service reductions, a drop in the accessibility of drug and alcohol cessation treatments and a vicious axe being taken to council budgets.
The total homeless population is estimated at 320,000 by Shelter, meaning that for every rough sleeper there are 63 other homeless people in the UK. This has come with a rise in people dying on our streets, estimated at almost 600 last year, including on parliament’s doorstep.
The human costs of rough sleeping are all too clear. But the rising financial costs are also felt by councils, the NHS and even the criminal justice system. Recent years have seen a slight fall in the total number of people being incarcerated but the proportion of homeless people entering UK prisons has risen to 27%. The average cost to lock someone up in England and Wales is £35,000 a year (more in Scotland and far higher in Northern Ireland).
Taxpayers footed a bill of £945m to lock up the homeless in 2017 after years of government cuts directly contributing to the problem. This is avoidable expenditure and comes instead of the preventative measures needed for a decent social security system, mental health services and other NHS treatments for example. Ministers are failing to adequately tackle homelessness and the warm words of the government target are cold comfort for rough sleepers and taxpayers alike.