The borough of Westminster has the highest number of people sleeping rough in the country – the precise figure is disputed and likely a drastic underestimation – and yet, also home to the vast concentration of central government power. In an articulate and rallying speech, Polly Neate, the journalist-turned-campaigner and CEO of housing charity, Shelter, used the third annual Bryan McGuire QC lecture to argue that without structural change instituted by the latter, it is unlikely that the former will be solved in the coming years.
When you think about the definition of being ‘homeless’, often we immediately associate it with sleeping rough. However, under the same category falls sofa-surfing and staying in unsuitable B&Bs. Taking this into consideration, it means that a staggering one in 103 children in the UK is homeless. Opening with this statistic, she shocked an audience of law professionals into silence before laying out Shelter’s multi-pronged proposal for dealing with the housing crisis.
Outlining her view that political consensus over the past 40 decades has led to the marginalisation and othering of people who rely on the state for housing and income, she argued against the rhetoric of austerity as a necessity, rather than a choice. Homelessness, is arguably the material response to policies focused solely on individual responsibility rather than taking circumstance and need into account.
Shelter, Polly explained, is not an organisation that relies on platitudes. Instead, it has used the existing legal framework, where it works, to restate the right of everyone to a safe home. In a landmark move, its campaign to ban landlords from posting advertisements specifying ‘no DSS’ on the grounds of possible contravention of the Equalities Act has led to online lettings and sales website, Zoopla, vowing to remove any postings in this vein.
Another example is the case of Samuels vs. Birmingham City Council, where a single mother was found ‘intentionally homeless’ after refusing to use benefits meant to cover her basic living needs to make up for the shortfall between her rent and her reduced housing benefit. Shelter intervened in the case, commissioning research that showed for a three-bedroom home, housing benefit – which has been frozen since 2016 – falls short of rents in 97% of England’s broad rental market areas. In showing the extent of the issue, whilst also arguing that it is unlawful to be found intentionally homeless for refusing to risk extreme financial suffering, the charity hopes to work towards concrete statutory change.
Whilst there is a place for individual pieces of legislation – the Homelessness Reduction Act and the Homes (Fitness For Human Habitation) Act to name two – Polly’s speech concluded by calling for a more transformative approach to tackling the housing crisis and homelessness. This would involve a commitment to undoing some of the key principles that underpin austerity, and an understanding of the necessitation of a large-scale social house-building drive.
In the current political climate, to call this a big ask would be a huge understatement. However, with the issue at a level of high visibility both in terms of public consciousness and as a policy priority, it is imperative that decisive action is taken. It’s already too late for over 2,500 homeless people who have died in the past five years – and as Polly articulated all too well, it’s never too soon to get started.