U.K.’s Homelessness Problem Is Growing, and Spreading, Report Finds
LONDON — The tents have become a familiar sight on the streets of London, popping up outside stores shuttered by a slowdown in trade or even below the plate-glass windows of high-end home improvement outlets.
Small and flimsy, they offer some rudiment of shelter to the growing ranks of the homeless in a city that prides itself on the wealth of the banks and businesses that help make Britain’s economy the fifth largest in the world.
According to research made public on Thursday by a nonprofit organization called Shelter, the number of homeless people in Britain is increasing steadily and has reached at least 320,000 across England and Wales — an increase of 4 percent over the past year, despite a government drive announced in May supposed to keep people in their homes.
The figure includes people in temporary accommodation or hostels; Shelter puts the number of “rough sleepers,” the British term for those forced to sleep in the streets, at 5,096.
And the numbers indicate that, as poverty bites in poorer cities, the phenomenon is increasing more rapidly outside the capital, propelled by high rents, reduced welfare benefits and eight years of public spending cuts linked to policies of austerity.
“Due to the perfect storm of spiraling rents, welfare cuts and a total lack of social housing, record numbers of people are sleeping out on the streets or stuck in the cramped confines of a hostel room,” Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, said. Hundreds of thousands of lives “will be blighted by homelessness this winter,” she added.
The statement was the latest indication of an acute imbalance in Britain’s wealth, even as the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May says that it has reduced child poverty and cut unemployment to its lowest level in years.
On Nov. 16, Philip Alston, a United Nations official with the title of rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, visited the country and concluded in a report that it seemed “patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty.”
“This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in food banks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the government to appoint a minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation,” Mr. Alston wrote.
Such assessments are profoundly embarrassing to the government as it presses to leave the European Union next year professing an economic robustness that will enable it to generate greater wealth without the encumbrance of its European partners and the European Union’s bureaucracy.
Amber Rudd, a former home secretary who is now the cabinet minister for work and pensions, responded tartly to Mr. Alston’s conclusion that 14 million people lived in poverty and 1.5 million were destitute. The calculations in the study undercut the government’s effort to replace Britain’s myriad social benefits with a single payment called “Universal Credit.” The new system has been criticized by its opponents as deepening poverty.
“I was disappointed, to say the least, by the extraordinary political nature of his language,” Ms. Rudd told Parliament, referring to Mr. Alston’s report.
“We are not so proud that we don’t think we can learn as we try to adjust Universal Credit for the benefit of everybody. But that sort of language was wholly inappropriate and discredited a lot of what he was saying.”
The latest assessment by Shelter was its third annual summary and showed homelessness rising from 294,000 in 2016 and 307,000 in 2017. The greatest concentration of homelessness was in London, which had 170,000 homeless people, more than 5,000 of them in Kensington and Chelsea, its richest borough. But the sharpest increases were in the English Midlands and in Yorkshire in northern England, Shelter said.
James Brokenshire, the government minister responsible for housing and communities, was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “No one should be left without a roof over their head, which is why we are determined to end rough sleeping and respond to the causes of homelessness.”
But, he added, “We know that there is more that we need to do.”
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