London dominates estimates of national homelessness newly published by Shelter. This, of course, is no surprise. Neither are high levels of homelessness anything new in the capital. In his book London: The Heartless City, published in 1977, David Wilcox reported that “by the end of 1976, 15,000 families were recognised as homeless”. And that was 10 years after Cathy Come Home.
Has anything improved? Shelter calculates that 170,000 people are homeless in London today. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has told the Guardian it does not recognise Shelter’s figures and provided one of 52,820 homeless households in temporary accommodation in London as of the 30 June. However, as households frequently comprise more than one person and Shelter’s figures are mostly drawn from the DCLG’s own data on temporary accommodation and rough sleeping, the difference between the two might not be so great.
Any comparison between these figure and the 15,000 homeless families of 1976 will be inexact, as counting methods and homelessness definitions have altered over the years. Moreover, London’s population has gone up by about 1.5m since then which alters the percentages. But however you cut the numbers, they’ve been going in the wrong direction recently.
Shelter claims that its methodology has “for the very first time” revealed “the true scale of homelessness” by adding up those DCLG numbers, others from social services departments secured through Freedom of Information requests and more on hostel bed spaces for single people gathered at Homeless Link. The venerable charity says its figures “should be viewed as robust, lower-end estimates” based on “conservative assumptions” and do not include the “hidden homeless” of so-called “sofa surfers” – usually young people staying with friends. The current DCLG figure is higher than the 50,970 it recorded for the final quarter of 2015, which, while lower than a peak of 63,800 at the end of 2005, was the first time it had topped 50,000 since 2008. In 2011 it was 35,620.
Shelter says that Newham is the borough containing the largest number of homeless people in London with 12,246 of them, followed by Brent with 10,582 and Enfield with 9,285. The one with the highest proportion of homeless people is Westminster, whose total of 8,059 represents a striking one in 25 of its overall population. In Newham, the figure is one in 27, in Haringey approximately one in 28 and in Kensington and Chelsea it is one in 29. At the bottom of Shelter’s “homelessness hotspots” top 20 is Wandsworth, with 3,987 homeless people and a ratio of one in 81.
The Shelter report points no fingers of blame, recognising that this long running problem has many causes and manifestations which vary from borough to borough and age to age. In the capital, where nothing is straightforward and spending cuts are deep, local authorities are struggling to cope. “There is no single solution to this problem,” says Lewisham Council, which has an imaginative “pop up” housing scheme in Ladywell among its policies: “Homelessness here continues to rise whilst the supply of suitable affordable accommodation is reducing and the cost of housing across all tenures has never been higher.”
Newham stresses that its similar problems are “exacerbated by the government’s welfare reforms which have restricted the number of properties available to families on low incomes”. It says a not-for-profit housing organisation it set up in 2006 provides some temporary accommodation. Across town, the story from Ealing Council is much the same: “The numbers of families presenting to the council as homeless is increasing year on year and, like many councils, we are struggling to find accommodation for them.” They are developing small pockets of their own land and building their own modular homes as an alternative to housing people in expensive, temporary private accommodation locally.
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