“Seeing homeless vulnerable people in London recently on the day we had our Christmas get together at work really made us all challenge our thinking,” says SharedVision’s Nigel Boulton. “We had far too much too eat and drink and then walked past countless men and women with little or nothing.”
Yet Christmas should be a time for families and friends to get together and celebrate, and while we at Shared Vision reflected on a positive year, we were acutely aware it also one of the most challenging times of the year for one of society’s most vulnerable groups – the homeless.
On Christmas Eve, seven people attacked and set fire to a homeless man sleeping on a train station platform in Berlin. The perpetrators have since been arrested and charged with attempted murder, while the victim escaped with minor injuries thanks to the quick intervention of witnesses.
The attack is a sad echo of the tragic death of 23-year-old Daniel Smith, who was beaten to death before being found dead in a burning tent close to Salford Central train station, Manchester, last January. Here, two men were convicted of his murder.
Risks on the street
People who live on the streets are undeniably vulnerable, open to the elements and exposed to risk. A survey by the charity Crisis found that 80% of homeless people had been attacked or suffered abuse in 2016. Many reported having items stolen, being urinated on or being sexually assaulted.
The sad inevitability is that situations like this will continue to happen more frequently, thanks to brutal and sustained cuts to homeless services by the government, and the rising numbers of homeless people.
In any one night in the UK in 2016, the number of people sleeping on the streets hit an ‘official’ total of 3,569 – a 30% increase on 2015 and double that of 2010. Realistically, the figures are likely to be far higher. In London alone 8,096 people were seen sleeping rough in 2015/16 – a 7% increase on 2014, and far above the official statistics, while a report by Shelter estimated that 250,000 people were homeless, with 1 in 51 people in London believed to have no fixed address.
Additionally, research by Homelessness Monitor revealed that 275,000 people approached their local authority for homelessness assistance in 2015. This is equivalent to a city the size of Sunderland living in fear of finding themselves on the streets.
This spiralling total will only be compounded by government cuts. In 2015, budgets for housing services in local authorities were reduced by 8% – more than any other council area. The danger is this leads to a vicious cycle of increasing homelessness as more people want to access homelessness support, but are unable to get appropriate help when they need it most.
The issue is further complicated by the need to address the underlying issues behind homelessness. In 2015, nearly a third of single homeless people reported having a mental health problem (32%), while rates of depression are 10 times higher in the homeless population than in the general public. Meanwhile, two-thirds of homeless people cite drug or alcohol addiction as the reason for becoming homeless, with nearly 40% saying they were currently taking drugs or recovering from a drug problem. Finally, more than 70% were found to be suffering from physical health problems, including respiratory conditions, joint and muscle pain and stomach issues.
Finding a solution
“Homelessness and the vulnerability it brings needs to be addressed not ignored,” says Nigel. “Society seems to be turning a blind eye or worse. We need to bring the issue right out into the spotlight.”
Yet it is not a problem that will be tackled easily, nor will it be a problem that will be solved if the government continues with swingeing cuts. It is also not a matter of simply solving the housing crisis by building more affordable homes.
We must begin to understand why people end up on the streets and we need to stop thinking of homeless people as street furniture, lost among the signage and lampposts that clutter our highstreets.
Homelessness can happen to anyone. And we need to find a solution before the already escalating problem becomes an epidemic.