Liz Rutherfoord, Chief Executive

SHP was established 40 years ago as part of a move toward a more progressive approach to tackling homelessness. But how far have we really come, asks our Chief Executive Liz Rutherfoord - and what would the next great step forward look like?

Forty years ago today, Single Homeless Project opened its doors for the first time. 

The foundations were laid in 1975, when Stuart Clark, a homeless man who had stayed in most of the London homeless shelters, managed to persuade a housing association to let him use a property in Pimlico to house himself and five other homeless men.  Two years later, SHP was formally established and Stuart became our first paid employee.

The homeless services Stuart experienced in early 70s London had in some ways changed little since the turn of the century. Single homeless people were still routinely packed into large, dormitory-style night shelters or resettlement units, sleeping hundreds at a time.  Dirty and noisy, with myriad regulations and little privacy, these relics of the Victorian workhouse era showed scant regard for the dignity or individual agency of the people in their care.

By 1975 Stuart and his friends had had enough, and decided to take matters into their own hands.  In their small way, by emphasising the importance of self-help and the value of living in the community, our founders were prefiguring a wider shift in thinking about how accommodation and support services for single homeless people could and should be run.

It took until the early 80s before the government finally decided to replace the resettlement units with smaller hostels and supported housing projects. The subsequent rapid growth of SHP, as well as a number of other charities, was directly linked to this shift, as money was redirected into a more personalised and community-based response to homelessness.

Today it’s remarkable to think that the doors of the notorious ‘Spikes’ - such as the huge former workhouse in Camberwell which accommodated some 1,100 men in its heyday - remained open as late as 1985.

Dealing with the symptoms of homelessness can only take us so far - to make a lasting difference it's necessary to deal with its underlying causes at a systemic level.

But how far have we really come?  Is our current model of homelessness provision equal to today’s challenges and those that are around the corner?  And what would the next great step forward look like?

Statistically at least, we are sliding backwards. Rough sleeping – the visible tip of the homelessness iceberg - has more than doubled since 2010.  In London alone, almost a thousand people sleep on the street on any one night. Factor in the ‘hidden homeless’ – those sleeping on friends’ floors, in temporary accommodation or in hostels – and, according to Shelter, more than a quarter of a million people are now homeless in England.

And yet in 2017 there is still no national homelessness strategy. That means no national targets to reduce homelessness and no joined up, multi-agency plan to tackle the problem.

It’s vital to support people in crisis. But practitioners have long understood that merely dealing with the symptoms of homelessness can only take us so far, and that to make a lasting difference it is necessary to deal with its underlying causes at a systemic level.

SHP is fortunate to work in partnership with a number of London councils that are investing in homelessness prevention, but the way services are funded and commissioned, both nationally and locally, is too often marked by expediency and short termism at the expense of the bigger picture. Last week, a damning report by the National Audit Office concluded that since 2010, councils have increased their spending on homelessness while simultaneously reducing spending on preventing it. Government austerity exacerbates the problem: local authorities, stretched to the limit by successive years of cuts, are unlikely to invest in early intervention and prevention if they are under pressure to pare services down to the bare bones. 

Meanwhile, in key areas such as mental health, offending and substance misuse, support services remain for the most part poorly co-ordinated.  Services that are focused on different needs tend to work in silos or even at cross purposes, with the result that homeless people or those at risk can fall through the gaps, or be passed from pillar to post.  At its worst, this ‘system maze’ leads to people being treated as problems to be contained or risk-managed, rather than individuals with unrealised potential and the right to a say in their future.

Forty years ago, campaigners were calling on the government to sit up and take notice of homelessness. Today they are lobbying ministers to scrap or change policies that are actively contributing to it.

As for public debate on homelessness and social exclusion, it seems that here too, we have taken a regressive turn. When SHP was established in the mid-70s, there was a growing sense that public attitudes were changing. Between 1966, when Ken Loach’s film Cathy Come Home sparked a national outcry, and 1977, when the ground-breaking Housing (Homeless Persons) Act was passed, homelessness came increasingly to be seen as primarily a housing problem - a social, rather than a personal, failing.

Today however, we seem all too ready to scapegoat marginalised groups or individuals while ignoring the social and economic factors behind the resurgent crisis.  A perfect storm has arisen from the chronic shortage in social housing, the impact of welfare reforms, and the rise of insecure and low paid jobs, not to mention the fact that house prices have risen thirteen-fold since 1977, when the average London property cost £16,493 - or less than £72,000 in today’s money.  Since 2010 alone, the cost of private rented accommodation in the capital has increased a staggering eight times faster than earnings.  

It's an irony that, whereas 40 years ago, campaigners were calling on the government to sit up and take notice of homelessness, today they are desperately lobbying ministers to scrap or change policies that are actively contributing to it.

Against such a background, we in the sector must continue to do all we can to raise awareness of the factors driving homelessness and to challenge the stigma and labels that society too often attaches to homeless or socially excluded people.

In our anniversary year we will redouble our efforts to promote the voices and perspectives of the people we work with.  Drawing on the insights of our staff and the first hand experiences of our clients, we will work with others to campaign for a more proactive and strategic approach to preventing homelessness.

Forty years on, we’re still working toward a society in which everyone has a place to call home and the chance to lead a fulfilling life.

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