“Lifestyle choice”?

Suella Braverman [ Credit: Creative Commons Flickr \ 10 Downing Street]

Tom Zagoria condemns the cynical Tory depictions of homeless people while a UN report says UK breaches poverty thresholds

When most people see their fellow human beings sleeping rough on the streets, they ask where our society has gone wrong. The (now former) Home Secretary Suella Braverman had a different reaction, saying,

“We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice.”

This “lifestyle choice” is growing in popularity. It has grown in popularity as her Tory Government slashed £1 billion from annual funding for single homeless people from 2010 to 2020, and failed to abolish Section 21 “No Fault Evictions” despite promising this since 2018.

It has grown in popularity as the Tories’ “hostile environment” policies denied people from migrant backgrounds homelessness support, creating a climate of fear which left people too terrified to engage with homelessness services.

It has grown in popularity as 200,000 homes for social rent were lost after 2010. There are 1.5 million fewer social homes today than there were in 1980, forcing people into exploitative, insecure and poor quality private rented homes.

It has grown in popularity as the UK Government has reduced benefits to a level which is “too low to protect people from poverty”, low enough that it breaches Article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Olivier to Schutter in November 2023.

I am a social worker, addiction worker and a former homelessness worker, and an activist with the Housing Action Teesside tenants union. I know that more and more people who are being driven into the “lifestyle choice” of homelessness, destitution and despair.

Responsibility for the homelessness crisis on our streets must lay with the Tory Government. But there is more than enough blame to go around. The housing and homelessness crisis has been building for decades, through successive governments which have allowed our housing system to prioritise profits over people.

Housing is treated as a financial asset for buy-to-let landlords, asset managers and developers, regularly leaving homes empty (with £20 billion of residential empty homes in London alone) or “landbanking” (sitting on land rather than building houses). Private landlords speak of their mortgages rising, but 70% of mortgage-free landlords are increasing their rents anyway during this cost of living scandal, intensifying the exploitation of their tenants. Council housing has been allowed to decline through Right to Buy and forced transfers to private housing associations by every Government, both Conservative and Labour, since 1979.

Ahead of the next General Election, much of the conversation has focused simplistically on “building more houses”. The Labour Party has set its stall behind a policy of amending planning rules to encourage more housebuilding by developers.

It is obvious that we need more housing built, and we need housing to be created around local amenities and community spaces. But creating more suburbs or “New Towns” will not solve our housing crisis unless people can afford them, on secure social tenancies.

Until that happens, people will continue to be trapped in a cycle of sleeping rough on our streets, dilapidated hostels then insecure private rented housing without support and without being able to afford the rent – then back onto the street.

The language of the system is Orwellian. Developers trumpet their housing as “affordable” if it is at 80% of market rents, even if market rents are rising at the highest rate since ONS records began. But nobody living on the basic rate of Universal Credit or trying to support a family while working on a minimum wage, could afford anywhere near this “affordable” housing in large parts of the country.

Councils, overstretched after 13 long years of austerity cuts, save money by gatekeeping services, using local connection and “intentional homelessness” (itself an absurd phrase) rules to pass people from pillar to post. 

While the official government statistics only record the 2,500 people sleeping rough during the snapshot “rough sleeper count”, nearly 300,000 people applied for homelessness support in England in 2022-23 alone, which is doubtless still an undercounting of the true scale of the crisis.

Meanwhile, far from offering support, far too many local authorities and police forces are implementing measures to criminalise homelessness – creating “Public Space Protection Orders” to criminalise rough sleeping. Some councils are now less open about the target but will still criminalise “aggressive begging” (which could include being sat peacefully with a sign within 30ft of a cashpoint). These laws solve nothing, and serve only to drive vulnerable people further away from help.

As the crisis continues to build, the desperation for change grows. Tenants’ unions and grassroots homelessness campaigns are building in strength, putting pressure on councils and Government to implement rent controls, end no-fault evictions and build council housing. That’s where the hope lies.

But in the meantime, few will mourn the end of this current Tory Government, with Suella Braverman and her likeminded MPs making the “lifestyle choice” of losing their seats in the next election.

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