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  • Lawrence Bailey

You can’t fix homelessness with charity

A friend commented to me recently that most of us are little more than two pay cheques away from living on the streets. He’s that kind of guy.

I’m sure the throwaway remark was made genuinely enough but it got me wondering how we managed to arrive at a point where homelessness is regarded merely as a matter of bad luck.

The reason for the conversation was a recently published survey highlighting that a 60% jump in the number of homeless families in the UK stems from government welfare reforms.

These are not the findings of some left-wing think tank. In fact, it is the National Audit Office (NAO) who report that homelessness of all kinds has increased "significantly" over the last six years.

It’s no accident either that this situation has drawn criticism from a public spending watchdog. After all the maths is simple enough. Homelessness costs the state over a billion pounds a year but estimated ‘savings’ in welfare payments have brought in a fraction of that sum.

The devolved nature of things in Wales means while the task of dealing with homelessness is a Cardiff Bay responsibility, it’s Westminster that controls the benefits regime. Ask every MP in the Evening Post region what is the issue most raised at advice surgeries and you’ll find welfare benefits close to the top.

Nor is it only lower income households who are at risk. With personal and credit card debt already at record levels, it would only take a couple of percent hike in interest rates to push a good chunk of notionally better off families into crisis.

Homelessness is not a simple phenomenon and nether are the causes. Ask people like Pat Dwan about his time as a mental health homeless outreach nurse. He will recount stories of family breakdown, sexual abuse, debt, substance misuse, depression and gambling – and affecting people from all walks of life.

There are also the so-called ‘hidden homeless’; those who lose their accommodation but find a temporary solution by staying with family members or friends or living in squats.

Every so often the whole messy issue gets publicised, as happened last week, but we still see less resources going into prevention than day-to-day efforts to mitigate the symptoms.

A couple of decades ago I was at a housing conference where the surprise speaker was Princess Diana. She’d just accepted the role of patron for Centrepoint, an accommodation charity for vulnerable youngsters.

Helping the homeless was the hot social topic for a month or so; then it wasn’t and nothing much changed other than Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” got played a lot.

A hard truth is that charity is not a solution. No-one suggests you can fix the burgeoning problems of the NHS by shaking a few tins on a street corner. Why on earth then do we think that homelessness can be tackled by slapping red noses on our faces every now and then?

We expect a joined-up approach between health and social care services. In my opinion, the housing agenda deserves nothing less.

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