Last Saturday, I was privileged to hear from two dedicated individuals who are working to end homelessness in the UK – Jon Sparkes, CEO of Crisis and Steve Ellis, CEO of Cornish charity St Petrocs. I was struck at how, in the 21st Century, with all the benefits of social media, education and awareness, there is so much misunderstanding around the causes of homelessness.
It turns out that the belief that we are all one pay check away from homelessness is a fallacy. We are far more likely to become homeless if we have endured poverty as a child, which seems to indicate that there is a solution. If we can eliminate childhood poverty, give our children the tools and the resilience to cope in the face of adversity, then we would be going some way towards ending homelessness.
One of the main causes of homelessness is private landlords ending tenancies. This could be for perfectly reasonable reasons – they wish to sell the property or live in it themselves, or it could be because they don’t want to rent to people on benefits or without steady work. When you are struggling to feed yourself, your ability to find enough money to move can be impossible.
Many people forced onto the streets face violence and abuse from passers-by – it’s not a safe place to be. They are frequently told to get a job – but how can they get a job when they have no home?
I read recently of one man who was sleeping in his car following a relationship breakup. He had a good job, but not enough savings to be able to pay the deposit and rent on a new flat. Each morning, he would drive to the local leisure centre, have a shower, dress and go to work. He was doing his best to maintain a normal routine, but the stress and strain of living in the back of his car led to him making mistakes at work.
He was called in to his supervisors’ office and asked to explain what was happening, but his pride got in the way and he didn’t open up about his living circumstances. As a result, he lost his job. Thankfully, colleagues spoke up on his behalf. Soon after he was offered his job back and the company helped him find somewhere to live.
This story had a happy ending, but thousands more don’t, and an unfortunate set of circumstances can lead to people being out of work and homeless. It’s really hard to escape from here because without a job you can’t get a house; without a permanent address you can’t get a job – it’s a Catch 22.
Housing and homeless charities work tirelessly to support people back into steady employment and put a roof over their heads, but perhaps it’s time for employers, landlords and society to play a part.
People rarely choose to become homeless, so if we can find a way to keep them housed, it would be far less of a burden on our society. Landlords should understand the implications of asking people to vacate their property without reasonable notice – they need to realise that not everyone can find several hundred pounds to move at the drop of a hat, and thus work with their tenants to find alternative accommodation.
Many people in the private rented sector worry constantly about the security of their tenancy. Whilst landlords need to be able to free up their property, those tenants that are paying their rent on time and not causing damage, should be afforded consideration and support if they are being asked to move.
I was talking with an employer recently about how they look after their team. They told me that, where anyone in their team was looking to move, they were happy to advance them the deposit and agree it could be paid back from their wages over a number of months.
These investments are normally the equivalent of one months rent and are quickly repaid, so there is little risk on the part of the employer, but of huge value to the employee. This initiative has helped created a very loyal and motivated workforce who don’t have to worry if they need to move.
Finally, as a society, we must work together to end homelessness. Removing poverty in childhood will be a significant factor.
Every one of us can watch out for the people around us who may be struggling following job loss or relationship breakdown and make sure they can keep a roof over their head. And for those who do become homeless, we need to be more compassionate and understanding to help them get a roof over their head and the help they need.
If we can reduce the numbers of people who are homeless, we will reduce pressure on the police and the NHS who are often seen as surrogate shelters, and on the charities that are looking after them. It’s far more cost effective to keep people in their homes rather than evict them and then deal with their homelessness.
Homelessness shouldn’t be an issue in today’s society. It is everyone’s problem and everyone’s responsibility to fix.