Britain Needs a New Approach to Homelessness
Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

Britain Needs a New Approach to Homelessness

Noel Yaxley
Noel Yaxley
10 min read

Author note: Some of the names in this essay have been changed in accordance with the wishes of those interviewed.

“Out here, everyone’s taking something,” a man named Karl explains as he scratches his chest and tries to gather up the copies of the Big Issue he’s just dropped. Karl is standing in the middle of a busy high street, across from Norwich’s historic market. He is one of the estimated 40 men and women in the city who sleep rough every night. Originally from east London, the 45-year-old left the capital after a relationship broke down and headed northward and settled here. After a number of serious issues with alcohol and drugs, he lost his flat and has spent the last three years bedding down on concrete in and around Norwich.

Homelessness is an extremely contentious and emotive issue. As a general rule, those on the Right view it as an employment problem, while those on the Left tend to see it as the result of austerity and cuts to social spending introduced by the Conservative party. As I wandered the city I stopped to ask strangers what they thought should be done to tackle the problem and received a litany of responses. The most common were: “Homeless people don’t choose to sleep on the streets,” “They need to get a job,” and “The problem is caused by inadequate government spending.” I heard the last of these the most. Not one person mentioned the city’s most serious problem: drug abuse. According to ONS data, Norwich has the highest heroin fatality rate in eastern England. At 4.1 deaths per 100,000, it exceeds those of larger cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, and London. And at 21 per 100,000, the city’s deaths from drug poisoning in the country are exceeded only by those of Blackpool.

I asked Karl about the problems faced by rough sleepers on a daily basis, and he told me drug abuse is the most common. This assessment is widely shared on the street. I asked a homeless woman if she takes drugs, and she looked at me with incredulity. “Are you serious, mate?” The middle-aged Irish woman with her elaborated: “You find me someone sleeping rough out here who claims they don’t take drugs,” she said, “and I’ll show you a leprechaun.” Outside McDonald’s, I found a talkative young man named Chris peering out from beneath a bundle of blankets. “I’m not much of a drinker, I’m more into drugs myself,” he told me, as an elderly woman handed him a coffee. “If you want to score, just hang around here for a while,” he added, before spotting the police, grabbing some dirty sheets, and quickly leaving.

In 2019, the deaths of 289 homeless people were attributed to drug poisoning—a 52 percent increase since 2017. Under the flyover on Magdalen Street I watched three people shoot up in plain view of the high street. When they noticed me, they simply lowered their heads and carried on. The many needle exchange facilities dotted around the city to minimise the spread of infections seem to have sent the unintended message that open-air intravenous drug injection is tolerated. Spent syringes litter the pavements. Last year, council workers collected more than 1,500 discarded needles primarily from children’s play areas and people’s gardens. This carelessness by many homeless addicts has the potential to cause serious public health problems. Should someone cut themselves on one of these discarded needles, the risk of contamination is high. According to Public Health England figures, 90 percent of Hepatitis C infections are found in intravenous drug users.

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In 1997, the Blair government made a considerable amount of effort to end rough sleeping. The “rough sleeper unit” set up by Louise Casey helped move 1,147 homeless people off the streets. In 2001, just three years after the unit was established, rough sleeping was reduced by two-thirds. But by the time Labour left power in 2010, the number of people sleeping rough nationwide had increased 141 percent—the current estimated number is 4,266.

That figure deeply troubles former Conservative MP Brooks Newmark. “One person sleeping rough is one too many,” he says. A former minister for civil society, in 2017 Newmark was influential in shaping government policy towards homelessness and rough sleeping. He spent a lot of time in New York during the 1980s when homelessness was at its peak. He returned to London in 1987 and has campaigned tirelessly on the issue ever since. After a few years spent volunteering at a soup kitchen in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he helped write a report for the Centre for Social Justice. It would be adopted by the Conservative government in their 2017 General Election manifesto and led eventually to implementation of the national “Housing First” policy.

The report proceeds on the basic assumption that housing is a human right, and that once housed, people will be better equipped to deal with other issues such as substance abuse and drinking. “There were some excellent examples of Housing First in Finland, Denmark, and the US with very low levels of recidivism,” Newmark tells me. The government has begun piloting Housing First in three cities: Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham, but he cautions that it’s too early to tell if the policy has been effective. So far, the government has allocated £28 million for these three pilot trials.

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In early July, when lockdown rules were temporarily relaxed, I went for a walk around the city. COVID appeared to have had little impact on the amount of people who were sleeping rough, and more and more homeless people appeared to be buying drugs. Dealers were operating in a brazen manner, obviously confident that they won’t be arrested. “Getting hold of anything out here is as simple as ordering a taxi” a man in a scruffy yellow jumper named Pete tells me. He is homeless and addicted to the synthetic cannabinoid Spice. The drug replicates the high of cannabis but is often cut or sprayed with dangerous chemicals that can lead to serious side effects for the user, such as seizures. He told me it is a big problem among the homeless because it’s cheap and easy to get.

Most homeless addicts raise the money to fund their addictions through begging, and many of the rough sleepers told me they could earn £100 a day in the city centre. Some take a more direct approach, harassing and threatening members of the public in order to part them with some of their money. I noticed a man hobbling away from a puzzled woman and asked her what he wanted. “He asked me for money and when I refused, told me to go to a cash point,” she replied. But begging doesn’t just affect public safety, it also puts the beggar’s life in danger. Many beggars have been attacked and some have been killed—a 60-year-old known as “old man Billy” was kicked to death outside Chicago’s nightclub, suffering a bleed to the brain in 2011.

Under the Anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act of 2014, the police have a number of powers at their disposal to deal with nuisance beggars, such as dispersal orders that beggars must vacate the area for 48 hours. Official figures reveal that in the last 12 months, police have issued 104 begging notices in the city centre. Although these measures were not primarily intended to deal with the homeless, according to Crisis, 29 of 81 local authorities have employed them to target rough sleepers. Does this address the problem? Sgt. Mark Shepherd of the Norwich East Safer Neighbourhood Team doesn’t think so. He believes unless there is more support for housing, or drug and alcohol addiction, his team is just “moving the problem around.”

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Mental illness is the other serious issue afflicting the lives of the homeless. The latest available figures reveal that 80 percent of homeless people in the city have reported a mental health problem. At the top of a short flight of stairs off St. Benedict’s Street, I found an old woman wrapped in a blue sleeping bag rocking back and forth and screaming incoherently at passers-by. When she appeared to have calmed down, I approached her. But when I took out my notepad, she fled down the stairs.

Leaving people on the streets with serious and unchecked mental health problems can have terrible consequences. In January 2018, a 23-year-old mentally ill homeless man carried out multiple sexual attacks on women in Norwich. During his trial, the jury heard how he grabbed a woman and dragged her into a secluded area and raped her multiple times, telling her she would be “hurt and murdered” if she spoke to anyone. He had a long list of previous convictions for crimes such as battery and criminal damage and was off his medication when he committed the attack.

Unsurprisingly, the combination of drug abuse and mental illness is impacting life expectancy. The Office for National Statistics tells us that, on average, people die 30 years younger if they are sleeping rough on the streets: homeless men and women have an average life expectancy of 44 and 42, respectively. That’s a third below the national average. According to Dr. Bethan Thomas of the University of Sheffield, homeless people are three times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. The ONS statistics reveal that suicide among the homeless has risen 30 percent in the last 12 months. Of the 778 that died on the streets last year, 112 were confirmed as suicide.

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Rough sleeping is by far the most visible form of homelessness, which is why many people assume that the two terms are synonymous. But rough sleeping is just one of several subcategories of homelessness. There is also statutory homelessness—those whom local authorities deem to be in priority need of housing. Then there’s the hidden homeless. These people do not appear in official figures and either couch-surf, squat, or spend their time alternating between spare bedrooms at friends’ houses. Finally, there are those in temporary accommodation. People in this position have a certain safety-net. For example, if a young mother is suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her partner and gets kicked out of her home, technically she is homeless but she is not on the streets. She will be one of 80,000 placed in temporary accommodation.

The reason she will be unlikely to end up sleeping rough can be attributed to a private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MP for Harrow East, Bob Blackman. Blackman’s Homeless Reduction Act was described by the National Housing Federation as “the biggest change to homelessness legislation in 40 years.” It empowers local authorities to extend further protection to those made homeless, regardless of priority. As housing charity Shelter says, “Councils must help if you’re legally homeless.” As a consequence, many facing the potentially distressing possibility of sleeping rough can now receive extra assistance.

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The suggestion that some of the city’s rough sleepers have made their own choice to live on the streets is often met with disbelief and derision. “Absolute rubbish,” one homeless outreach worker told me, and a “bigoted horrible suggestion.” But the homeless I spoke to insisted the decision to sleep rough was largely made of their own volition. Karl told me he was offered help to get off the streets by a number of different organisations but refused it. Another man, who wouldn’t tell me his name, said he was offered drug treatment but always said no. “Out here I feel like a king,” he explained. “I have everything I need, why would I give that up?”

The money offered by benevolent citizens and the abundance of cheap drugs act as a magnet for the area. Although local homeless charities estimate that there are roughly 40 homeless people in Norwich, the city council say they have come across nearly 400. “Norwich is definitely a good place to be if you sleep on the streets,” Karl told me. “There is a lot of help here, showers and free clothes.”

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If we are serious about helping rough sleepers, we must find other ways to help. One way to do this is to offer someone food when they ask for money. If they are in genuine need, they will often accept. As part of a project called Greater Change, Oxford University has developed an app that allows the public to give money to beggars indirectly using a smartphone (of the dozen or so people I spoke to, all but one had an iPhone). That money is stored in an online account and can be used to contribute towards a deposit on a flat or some food and drink. By giving on the street, the generosity of kind-hearted citizens can trap homeless people in a state of dependency. With what powers they have, the police will just pass people over to the courts, who will just send them back out onto the streets, where drug addiction will continue to consume them. Without wholesale reform, the problem will continue, in perpetuity.

Employment can be extremely difficult to obtain, and is likely to get harder post-COVID. A chronically drug-addicted person is not going to be able to hold down a job, or even succeed during a job interview. The constant need to satiate an addiction and secure a steady supply to stave off withdrawal is not conducive to a functioning nine-to-five working environment. Then there’s the problem of personal responsibility when it comes to paying bills and meeting financial commitments. This is why the Housing First programme could be potentially beneficial.

If homeless addicts have any hope of gaining a stable future, Norwich needs to drastically reform treatment facilities. Data from UK Addiction Treatment reveal a 20 percent rise in drug poisoning deaths in Norwich in the last five years, while during the same period, there has been an £8 million cut to drug and alcohol services. There also needs to be a concerted effort to help those with mental health problems. Leaving the mentally ill to rot on the streets is not compassionate or liberal, it is cruelty of the worst kind. Like drug addicts, those suffering from the most severe mental health problems must enter treatment facilities. Allowing the worst off into treatment facilities rather than sending them to face the threat of incarceration would also help drastically lower the already over-capacity prison population.

Politicians have come and gone, promises have been made, strategies enacted and special advisers appointed, while in England the number of people sleeping rough continues to rise. Despite numerous government pledges such as Theresa May’s promise to halve homelessness by 2022, followed by Boris Johnson’s commitment to eliminate it entirely by 2024, the current figures suggest little improvement. Nationwide, £1.2 billion has recently been invested to tackle the problem. Is this simply “inadequate government spending”? But funding needs to be targeted strategically and allocated sensibly. Bob Blackman’s Homeless Reduction Act, which appears to show signs of providing an important safety net for vulnerable people, has received just £63 million. When you consider how much has been spent already, this is paltry in comparison.

I believe that we have a duty to support those in society who fall through the cracks. But if we are to help these people, we must acknowledge some awkward and uncomfortable facts and accept the world as it is, not as we would prefer it to be.

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Noel Yaxley

Noel Yaxley is a freelance writer based in England. He writes regularly for a number of different publications.