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Can Brexit help end rough sleeping on the streets of the UK ?

‘One death on our streets is one too many’ said the Ministry of Housing’s Updated Statement on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping in early October 2019.

In 2018, deaths of homeless people in the UK rose by approximately 22% compared to 2017 – around 726 died in England and Wales that year.

Estimating the number of rough sleepers (people sleeping in the open air or in places not designed for habitation) is complicated. However, it is estimated that around 4677 people in the UK were sleeping rough in 2018, an increase of 165% since 2010 (when around 1768 of people were recorded as rough sleepers).

National homelessness charity, Crisis, has warned that these numbers could double in the next six years if nothing is changed.

The Government, in its 2018 Homeless Reduction Act and Rough Sleeping Strategy, has pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it by 2027, by investing £1,2 billion in various programms such as the Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI).

This marks a significant shift in approach to end homelessness in the UK, and local authorities are required to intervene earlier while certain bodies – such as A&E services and urgent treatment centers – must notify local officials about the presence of rough sleepers in their area.

£76 million was given to 246 councils in 2018,  as part of the ‘Prevent, Intervene and Recover’ Rough Sleeping Strategy, as local authorities attempt to support rough sleepers and provide them with temporary accommodation.

The government proudly claimed that the number of ‘vulnerable’ rough sleepers had decreased by 32% compared to the expected number had the RSI not been put in place.

The promise of Brexit won the Conservatives a large majority during the mid-december 2019 General Election. Some, like 32-year old Ray Hoblyn (interviewed by Financial Times correspondent, Judith Evans), hope that Brexit will allow the government to assist the ever-growing number of rough sleepers on the streets of Britain. Mr Hoblyn is hopeful that curbs on migration after Brexit will reduce housing demands and provide decent accommodation for rough sleepers: suggesting that maybe after Brexit conditions will improve.

Will they?

After ex-chancellor George Osborne’s multiple cuts on local housing allowances (housing benefits used by low-income residents of private accomodation) and their suspension since 2016, it seems that the core structural factors for homelessness in the UK – namely, housing availability and affordability– have been utterly neglected during what has now been a decade of economic austerity led by Conservative administrations.

The problem is not with immigration ; rather, it lies in the lack of low-cost housing which has increasingly forced thousands of renters onto the streets or into temporary, unsafe accommodations.

Last year, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan warned Tory officials against the lack of investment in social housing and cuts to support services : “This cannot be ignored any longer. Government must urgently act to resolve long-standing homelessness issues and provide access to accommodation and employment, if we are to ever end this crisis.”

Providing basic assistance to rough sleepers is a start – but if we don’t tackle the root causes, the situation is unlikely to improve (at best, it will stagnate) .

More fundamental changes in policies are needed if we are to effectively address structural problems in the housing market.

And, as Polly Neate, homelessness charity Shelter’s Chief Executive, puts it, “you can’t reduce homelessness without homes” …

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