Image: Victor Huang. London housing. A picture of a block of flats from a walkway.

Want to tackle homelessness? We need to start with inequality.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘homeless’? What do you see in your mind’s eye? What do you conjure as their life history? It is probably not that much of a stretch to suggest that many of you will be imagining the same sort of person, characterised by the same sorts of traumas, illnesses, and histories. You are also probably thinking of someone far removed from yourself, perhaps someone whose choices led them towards crisis point and ultimately, a life on the streets. That image you are holding in your mind’s eye, however, is actually quite different from the reality of homelessness for many. 

In 2021, the charity Crisis estimated that around 227,000 people were experiencing the worst forms of homelessness [1]. That includes the rough sleeping you likely imagined at the suggestion of the word ‘homeless’, but it also includes people sleeping in vans, in sheds, or staying in temporary B&Bs. Yet those figures don’t capture the full extent of homelessness, they mask the ‘hidden homeless’ moving between friends and families, the blithely named ‘sofa surfers’. How many of those will lose even that level of security and perhaps face a night or more on the streets?

Homelessness is not just rough sleeping. And though the chances of spending a night on the streets are higher for some groups of the population – indeed government ‘snap shots’ of rough sleeping typically find that most are male and aged over 26 [2] – the risk of homelessness has a far greater reach. So many of the population have always been one missed pay cheque, or one unexpected bill, away from rent arrears and the threat of losing their home. In fact, in the first quarter of this year 74,320 households were owed a prevention order. That means 74,320 households were facing the possibility of homelessness within 56 days. 

As a society, and in no small part helped by prevailing political narratives, we too readily agree that for an individual who is homeless, or is facing homelessness, it must be their fault. Why don’t they work? Who did they hurt? What addiction are they incapable of shifting? The politics of today is imbued with a toxic narrative of blame and this seeps into how we support, or do not support, the individuals which make up our society. It is individuals who are to blame or to celebrate for their current situation, but is that fair? 

Despite some falls in the numbers of rough sleeping seen through the course of the pandemic, earlier this year councils in England were warning of a ‘tidal wave’ of need with Crisis estimating that more than 66,000 more people will be homeless by 2024. Behind that tidal wave of need are politics and policy choices.

The global financial crash of 2008 should have told us all we needed to know about the consequences of our approach to the housing market. It seems, however, lessons are still to be learned. The private rental sector does not fare much better as landlords, constrained by remarkably little legislation, can increase rent as they choose, and all evidence suggests this is certainly what they are doing. Tenants faced with the addition of £100s to their monthly rent have no choice but to seek alternatives, whether suitable or not. Those facing the vagaries of the private rental market and the impossibility of a mortgage are not, however, particularly well supported in the dwindling stocks of social housing. 

Structural inequalities of income, wealth and power enable and drive a housing landscape which advantages some at the expense of many more. The cost of living scandal – or, more accurately, the cost of inequality – means the mountains and cliffs of this already uneven housing landscape are about to become more treacherous. 

10th October 2022 marks the 12th World Homeless Day at a time when, at least in England, an unprecedented number of families and households are teetering ever closer to the risk of homelessness. The costs of keeping warm and fed are spiralling and the ability to meet rental payments and perhaps even mortgage repayments are at risk. When we imagine homelessness, we must not imagine the unlucky face of someone whose fortunes are not on their side. Instead, we are now forced to look to our friends, colleagues and family to see who will suffer the consequences of poor policy and poor politics. Politics and policy can stop the tidal wave of need engulfing our society, and we should demand it of our government. 

Dr Fran Darlington-Pollock

Chair, The Equality Trust

[1] Crisis (2021) 227,000 households across Britain are experiencing the worse forms of homelessness.

[2] (2022) Rough Sleeping snapshot In England: autumn 2021

[3] Crisis (2022) The Homelessness Monitor: England 2022