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This isn’t just homelessness: it’s by design, and we let it happen

The Guardian logo The Guardian 9/13/2017 Hugh Muir
Homeless person in London: ‘Visible mass homelessness, degrading as it is for those who live it, and shaming as it is for those who see it, has become a new normal.’ © Getty Images ‘Visible mass homelessness, degrading as it is for those who live it, and shaming as it is for those who see it, has become a new normal.’

Of the expectations we have of government, isn’t one of the most basic that it should protect the vulnerable? That is what strong and moral societies do. For nations that presume themselves Great, that should be prerequisite.

And it is with that in mind that one might assess this government’s record on homelessness. Not just homelessness resulting from bad luck or mental health problems, but homelessness visited upon fellow citizens as a direct result of government policy. It is naive to believe that ministers can fix everything, but they have a duty not to take a bad situation and make it worse.

Consider what we know today, from the diligence of the National Audit Office (NAO). Between 2011 and 2017, the number of homeless households requiring temporary accommodation rose by 60%. More than 120,000 of those people affected were children, a figure that has risen 73% since 2011.

How did that happen? Look to government and then look to cause and effect. The government, continuing the malign trend of successive administrations but in particular a viciously self-serving strain of Tory philosophy, ran down the stock of public housing, the better to produce Conservative-voting homeowners. So people turned to the private sector. The NAO tells us that the biggest single driver of statutory homelessness in England is now the ending of private sector tenancies.

Why do those agreements fall apart? The capping of local authority housing allowance is, says the NAO, a major factor. It means that already poor families cannot afford those properties. And how goes the stewardship of this rotten, inhumane, system? Well, that’s the main message: not too good.

According to the NAO, ministers have not evaluated the effect of their own welfare reforms on homelessness, nor the effect of own initiatives in this area. They require local councils to have a homelessness strategy but don’t monitor what they do or how that is progressing. There is no published cross-government strategy to deal with homelessness. And yet it plagues our town and cities. How can that be? The best hope is incompetence. The worst fear is that until the auditors shine a light, and unless the media kick up a fuss, they don’t much care.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, seems incredulous about the apparent insouciance of those presiding over such a flawed system. “It is difficult to understand why the department persisted with its light-touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem,” he says today. “Its recent performance in reducing homelessness therefore cannot be considered value for money.”

His focus, as an auditor, must be the money. But where is the morality in all of this, and the duty of care? Some who find temporary accommodation must consider themselves the lucky ones, for the NAO also reveals that 4,134 rough sleepers were counted and estimated on a single snapshot night in 2016, an increase of 134% since the same exercise was undertaken six years earlier.

We didn’t know the stats, but we do know the philosophy from which this nightmare springs. When a government spends years shrinking the state and imposing austerity on those who rely on communally provided services, casualties are inevitable. It doesn’t seem too big an ask that ministers should at least survey the wreckage. But then, this is a government for which so many other things, calamities of its own design, take priority.

In months to come, policies will be unveiled to help more of the “strivers” buy their homes. There will be promises, as there have been today: £550m to be spent by 2020, and a parroted commitment to end rough sleeping. But with the purse strings tight, mounting demands for cash elsewhere, and little political advantage to be gained, don’t expect too much to stop the less fortunate being thrown out of their rented properties or even on to the streets. There is little apparent compassion, but plenty of hard-headed calculation.

Visible mass homelessness, degrading as it is for those who live it, and shaming as it is for those who see it, has become a new normal. We see it but we don’t see it. If ministers are shirking their duty of care to the homeless, isn’t that – at least in part – because we let them?

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