Where should homeless people live?

While the number of people who experience homelessness has been rising, the number of bed spaces in homeless hostels has been declining.

  • In 2010 there were 43,600 bed spaces in homelessness accommodation services. Today, this stands at 36,540.
  • In 2010 there were 1,768 people sleeping rough in England (using the government’s measure). In 2014 there were 2,744.
  • In 2010 Local Authorities accepted 42,390 household as homeless, in 2014 they accepted 53,250 as homeless.

Many homeless hostels were funded by through a government scheme called “supporting people”. This money is no longer ringfenced meaning councils can use the money for other things. Given the overall cuts in funding for councils, this is exactly what many have done.

The effect is that many single homeless people end up living in private hostels. While the anonymity of “dosshouses” can be attractive, it is a highly insecure way to live and not one that aids many people’s recovery.

Is this the future? More people being made homeless and fewer specialist services to support them. Sadly, a combination of austerity and so-called localism points that way.

The so-called ‘Housing first‘ model offers a glimpse of a different future. The model essentially works by giving homeless people a flat (i.e. paying their deposit and rent) and linking them with a worker who sees them for hours a day, helping them in whatever way is best.

Using this method Utah has seen a 72% reduction in the number of homeless people.

A bold Labour candidate for the Mayor of London could announce a pan-London Housing First scheme and end homelessness in the capital within 8 years.

Housing the homeless

The New Statesman doesn’t care about homeless people.

Their recent leader called for an increase in the number of homes being built in this country “For the sake of growth and our young people”. They didn’t mention the need to prevent homelessness once.

It is of course a pressing issue that the average age of a “first-time homebuyer without parental assistance” is now 37. But is it as significant as the terrifying increase in the number of homeless people?

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Over the past 5 years almost all boroughs in London have seen an increase in the number of people sleeping rough.

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The New Statesman is not alone in failing to link this problem with the challenge of how to build more homes. The recent, and in many ways comprehensive, Lyons review included just two paragraphs on “housing for vulnerable groups” and a couple of mentions on homelessness in a report that is nearly 200 pages long.

I’m not suggesting that homelessness is simply caused by high rents or a lack of affordable housing. I am suggesting that building more homes would reduce the number of people who have to spend even one night sleeping on the streets.

We are currently building nowhere near as many homes as Boris’ London Plan says are required.

4As long as we continue to build far fewer new homes than are needed it will be harder to prevent people becoming homeless, especially now the biggest cause of homelessness is people losing their private sector tenancy.

Many journalists and politicians do not consider preventing homelessness and helping overcrowded families as significant an issue as supporting economic growth or helping first time buyers afford a deposit.

Given that I have written numerous pieces on the need to increase the number of houses being built in Britain, it’s perhaps a bit churlish to criticize others who are calling for the same thing. The idea of building more homes is an excellent one, partly because it would make it easier for young people to buy their first home, but also because it would help prevent homelessness.

Where is it better to live, UK or USA?

“England [sic] is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small.” – Mitt Romney

When it comes to housing, which country is best, the UK or the USA?

Here is a completely scientific and in no way impressionistic answer.

1. The number of people who own their own home is on the decline in both the USA and the UK

image (1)

Verdict: Draw

2. Far more Americans than Brits sleep rough

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Verdict: UK wins

3. Partly because there is so much more public housing in the UK than the USA

image (2)

Verdict: UK wins (showing my bias)

4. Compared to average wages, houses in the UK aren’t anymore expensive than in the USA (on average)

image (3)

Verdict: Draw

5. But American homes are a lot larger than homes in the UK (Romney was right about something)

image (4)

Verdict: USA wins

Final score: UK wins 2:1. 

Tokyo

A recent trip to Tokyo illustrates something about the old question; is it ‘people’ or ‘place’ that matters?

Tokyo has poor cycle infrastructure

There are very few bike lanes in Tokyo. Cyclists often share the pavement with pedestrians which is frustrating for both groups.

However, far more people cycle than in Washington DC or London, which have both invested heavily in things like bike lanes and cycle hire schemes.

In fact, about 14% of journeys in Tokyo are by bike, compared with only 4% ish of people in DC that commute on bikes.

Tokyo allows some public smoking

 

Tokyo has fewer restrictions on where you can smoke than many other rich cities.

There are designated public smoking areas and many restaurants have smoking areas.

More people smoke in Japan than in other rich countries, but not that much more. Roughly one in four Japanese people smoke, whereas one in five Americans smoke.

Homeless people in Tokyo are highly visible

 

Some homeless people in Tokyo live in prominent blue tents made of tarpaulin in Ueno park.

There is something much more permanent about these tents than I have seen in Washington DC. They reminded me of the old cardboard city in London.

There are up to 5,000 homeless people in Tokyo. This is considerably fewer than in Washington DC, a much smaller city.

It’s not so much ‘place’ that matters as ‘social’

A recent report by the Work Foundation takes as it’s title the old question, “People or Place?”, asking, in essence, where should we focus our attention, on improving places or helping people (through whatever means)?

These three examples from Tokyo show how places can acquire social meaning for people. Different people will have different feelings towards the same place. Some might feel like they belong, while others feel that they are trapped and others in turn feel like they are just passing through and so on.

The social meaning that places have is bound up with people’s relationship with other people and with more abstract groups such as ‘the public’ or ‘my neighbours’. As Zachary Neal says, cities are social networks as much as geographic or administrative areas.

Rather than solely looking at how we can get a certain company to locate in an area by giving it tax breaks or asking how we reduce unemployment through training schemes for everyone out of work, we should also try and understand the different social meanings of places and use this as a basis for policy.

This could mean a number of things, from Renaisi’s work on ‘Tech City‘, to Porter’s ideas on ‘Business Clusters‘ or the ‘going with the grain‘ approach that John Houghton has talked about.

Either way, talking about ‘people’ or ‘place’ can be unhelpful if it blinds us to the importance of social interaction, norms and values.

Pictures of housing and homelessness in DC

This is a short photo essay on housing and homelessness in Washington DC.

There are many homeless people in DC.

The city government’s hostels look like prisons.

In some areas, housing for people on low incomes is being replaced with housing for people on higher incomes.

While in other areas, housing has been abandoned.

The city is planning to give away public land for free to developers so that they can build more houses for people on high incomes.

But some people are organizing against this.

It’s hard for homeless people to organize because they have limited social networks.

That’s why I am working with the Father Mckenna centre on a project that encourages homeless people to grow their social networks.

Stories about homeless people’s social networks

Sometimes it’s only when you buy something new that you realize how many other people have it. Suddenly, you notice lots of other people with the same shirt as you or the same phone as you.

Well, it can be the same with ideas.

Since I’ve started thinking about homeless people’s social networks (their friends, family and acquaintances) I am noticing more and more how questions about relationships are important in homeless people’s stories. Perhaps it’s that old problem that if you have a hammer you only see nails, or perhaps looking at the world in this way helps us see things we might otherwise miss.

I’m going to put down three stories here and let you decide what to make of it all.

***

He is addicted to hard drugs and living with friends who are also regular users. His place has lots of people coming and going, many of them also using.

One day he decides (not for the first time) that he wants to get clean. He leaves his place and checks into a homeless shelter. He’s so desperate to stop using drugs that he makes himself homeless to get away from the temptation.

He starts to get lonely and restless away from his friends.

***

Something happened when he was living in LA. It’s not quite clear what. It seems to have involved his home being invaded, his mother starting to use hard drugs and he thinks people from his church were implicated.

Somehow (he says someone at the Church helped) he gets enough money together to get to Washington DC. He arrives in Union Station. He doesn’t have any friends or family in the city.

A homeless person tells him about a day shelter that might be able to help.

***

Whenever he would visit a member of his family they would hide their pocketbooks because they didn’t want him to steal from them again. This would make him angry and he would get in fights with his siblings.

He’s clean now. He went over to visit his sister. Some members of the family left the room and left their pocketbooks behind. Surprised, he asked his sister why they hadn’t taken the pocketbooks with them.

“We know you don’t do that anymore” she replied. He cried.

Dream Housing presentation

I am delighted to say that I have secured funding from The RSA for the Dream Housing project I am working on.

The project will mostly be done in partnership with the Father Mckenna Centre in Washington DC.

Here is the lastest presentation I gave to staff at the centre on how we have progressed with the idea.