The death of a homeless man in an underpass at Westminstertube station, in London, appears to have brought the massive problem facing families and communities across the UK right to the doorstep of our democracy. Ministers have ignored the impact their policies have been having on the numbers rough sleeping for eight years. This most extreme form of homelessness was at its lowest in 2005 when just over 400 people were sleeping rough in the whole of Britain. In every year since Labour left office, the numbers have risen dramatically. In London alone, according to the London Assembly, there were more than 8,000 sleeping rough last year.
Rough sleeping, though, is the tip of the homelessness iceberg. The other seven-eighths are less visible, comprising people who are sofa-surfing, sleeping in stairwells or living in garages, B&Bs or hostels. More than 300,000 people are homeless, and there were an estimated 120,000 children in temporary accommodation over the Christmas period in 2017, according to Shelter. In my surgery sessions, I’ve seen a City cleaner carrying her belongings with her to and from work and sleeping on night buses. I also helped one 19-year-old woman who had been forced out of her family home after abuse but was denied initial assistance. By the time she came to me admitted that she was forcing herself to go to bars each night to find a man to spend the night with to avoid being on the streets.
The situation is desperate and affects every community, with large urban areas and key stations in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham now having very visible homeless populations. Brighton has one of the highest rough-sleeping populations and the immediate area around parliament is fast heading back to the bad old days of “cardboard city”, with more than 200 rough sleepers present each night.
With almost a quarter of the nation’s rough sleepers bedding down on its streets, London also has more shelters and other outreach services. My own local authority, Southwark, is spending £3m this year on preventing homelessness, while charities such as St Mungo’s provide overnight accommodation and, often, meals, too. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has opened emergency shelters more quickly and had them stay open for longer.
Yet, despite these extra services in London, and this man being known to the Westminster outreach team, his death was not prevented. Ministers have not so much swept the problem under the carpet, as almost stepped over it on the way to work.
The government’s failure to tackle the housing crisis is only one contributory factor in the current surge in homelessness. The retraction of mental health services, devastation of council budgets, withdrawal of proven interventions around drug and alcohol addiction, the cosh applied to disability benefits and delays in universal credit payments have all played their parts. Meanwhile, those known to be most at risk of becoming homeless have been neglected by a government cutting corners. They include children leaving care services, people leaving prison and those leaving the armed forces.
As political will has dissipated, charities and the public have stepped in. When Sadiq Khan asked in December for donations to help open up shelters more quickly in cold weather, £100,000 was raised in a few weeks. Volunteers run shelters across the country. In south London, the Robes Project recruits an army of volunteers to help churches provide accommodation and food in winter to people who would otherwise be on the streets. The public remains strongly in favour of preventing homelessness. Whether ministers choose to continue walking by when someone dies on their doorstep will now come under scrutiny.
• Neil Coyle is the Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark