With homelessness rising, we should appreciate the roofs over our own heads - Jayne Dowle

An extra 40,000 people will be homeless in England this Christmas, says the charity Shelter, and I met one of them outside my local supermarket last week. Let’s call this lad ‘Joseph’ to remind us that at this time of year, the plight of homeless people is especially poignant. I’d say he was about 25, accompanied by a large, sad-looking grey dog.

Pablo was the name of the dog, I discovered. I’d just nipped into the shop with my debit card and didn’t have any change with me at all - those in favour of a cashless society take note – so I couldn’t give Joseph a pound coin or two. But I was buying dog food; so I gave him a couple of sachets for his dog, and we had a little chat.

Joseph popped the sachets into his carrier bag, which I noticed was already three-quarters full of dog food and treats, presumably donated by others. As I walked to my car I overheard Joseph talking to a young woman, explaining that he’d had a row with his girlfriend a few days ago and she had kicked him out, with his dog. He’d been sleeping in doorways since.

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This young woman told him that he couldn’t stay with her as she had a partner and a baby, but suggested a mutual friend he might contact to beg a sofa off for a few nights. I haven’t seen either Joseph or Pablo since, but I hope they manage to find somewhere more permanent to stay, for Christmas at least.

A homeless person sleeping rough in a doorway. PIC: Yui Mok/PA WireA homeless person sleeping rough in a doorway. PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire
A homeless person sleeping rough in a doorway. PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Just one case of homelessness out of the 309,000 individuals Shelter expects to find spending the festive season “in a tiny hostel room or freezing doorway”, but illustrating a twist of fate that can over-turn a life in an instant and throw anyone on the streets. Shelter says that this 40,000 increase in seasonal homelessness – which will see people spending Christmas and New Year in hotels, B&Bs and other temporary accommodation - is up 14 per cent since last year and proves that the situation is rapidly spiralling out of control.

This startling increase in people spending the festive season in hotels, B&Bs and other temporary accommodation emerged from official figures and freedom of information requests.

Overall, in the last year there has been a 26 per cent increase in rough sleeping, with 140,000 children living in temporary homes and 20,000 people living in hostels or supported accommodation, Shelter’s analysis shows.

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The charity puts this down to an unsettling cocktail of factors, most of them exacerbated by the pandemic and the subsequent cost of living crisis.

The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced in November that housing benefit would increase from April 2024 to better match actual rents. However, housing benefit rates have been frozen for four years, despite private landlords hiking up rents since the pandemic and in light of recent mortgage rate rises. In addition, renters are at the mercy of ‘no-fault’ evictions. Despite an April 2019 promise from the government to ban this practice, nothing has come to pass.

Homelessness does not affect only single people like Joseph.

Many of those without a permanent roof over their heads this Christmas will be families with young children. Polly Neate, Shelter’s chief executive, says it is “appalling that the government has allowed thousands of [homeless] families to be packed into damp and dirty B&Bs and hostel rooms, which are traumatising children and making people desperately ill.”

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Meanwhile, the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities insists it is spending £2bn to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, adding: “Temporary accommodation is an important way of making sure no family is without a roof over their head, but councils must ensure it is temporary and suitable for families, who have a right to appeal if it doesn’t meet their household’s needs.”

Scrooge himself could not have put it better. Never mind the £2bn, which sounds like a figure plucked from mid-air, I wonder if Mr Hunt has any idea of the mechanics of launching “a right to appeal” if you’re stuck in a dirty, overcrowded B&B room? It’s clear to anyone who takes an interest in social affairs that the Conservative government has ignored homelessness on its watch, and now, as Shelter argues, the situation is out of control.

In October, Labour MP Mike Amesbury, recently appointed shadow minister for building safety and homelessness, reminded us in The Big Issue that there are “a multitude of reasons why people can find themselves homeless or even sleeping on the street.”

Amesbury also said that his party would ramp up the last Labour government’s multi-agency Rough Sleepers Unit, and build more affordable homes.

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“A stable home is a prerequisite of good physical and mental health, happy relationships and the base from which to develop a career and raise a family,” he added.

At Christmas time, when ‘stable’ holds such significance, we should appreciate the roofs over our own heads, and never walk past those less fortunate than ourselves.

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