Today, in Britain, we have a problem: when the seventh richest country in the world can no longer afford to fund services that support the most vulnerable in society, something must be up.
In Oxford, many people are homeless. Many are aware of people rough sleeping, or living in one of Oxford’s hostels, but there is also an unseen side of homelessness. There is the equivalent of more than one hostel of people housed temporarily in private rented accommodation, yet even to qualify for this there are the four hoops of ‘statutory homelessness’ to jump through. These include having to be in priority need, such as having children or being disabled – nationally, 5,000 homeless applicants were rejected for not meeting these criteria in just 3 months last year. Anyone that doesn’t meet the criteria has to make do, ending up with precarious housing arrangements – from overcrowded accommodation to ‘sofa surfing’ to being reliant on rogue landlords.
For those people who currently access services, their support is now being cut from beneath their feet. This February, the county council agreed to cut 38% from the Supporting People budget. Not least of the disruption is the uncertainty for homeless services in Oxford, as the details of how this cut will play out still haven’t been decided. However, I know staff providing these services are expecting the end result to be more people will sleep on the streets, hostels could close, and fewer people will have access to other services they need. Homeless people are disproportionately more likely to have other, multiple support needs, including for mental health problems and addictions: these related services are included under the axe of 38%.
More action is needed to tackle homelessness, not less. The services that exist (until now at least) help make homelessness temporary for many people, giving them the support to move on. But until no one is homeless, our society is failing. We need to tackle our housing crisis and the burden of rent, end unemployment and poverty levels of pay, stop banning asylum seekers and refugees from working, and deal with the root causes that lead to mental health problems, family breakdown or domestic abuse that can all be factors in making people homeless.
These 38% cuts happened, not because these services aren’t needed, but because something is broken. Neoliberal politics has suffocated our ability to shape our own communities. Despite significant protest against these cuts, neither the Tory council or the Labour opposition group made proposals to even reduce the size of the cut to homeless services. Yet the options for councils are very few. My colleagues in the Greens proposed using extra council tax to keep homeless services open, yet the coalition’s new rules force councils to put more than the smallest council tax rises to a local referendum. Other parties didn’t fancy trying to make the case for an extra 40p a week. Effectively, the government has pushed councils into a corner, forcing local politicians to hand out the largest cuts to services for the most vulnerable.
Even if we could have scraped together funding for homeless services from council tax, we are still left with Britain’s problem. We may have just missed a triple dip recession, but more often than not the economy is growing not shrinking. The country is getting wealthier, but are people’s lives getting better? It’s no secret that GDP is a poor measure of how well our society is doing, but there is a political side to the question. Why do we still fail, as a wealthy society, to provide for those in need?
The problem isn’t about to go away. Housing benefit cuts are now starting to make people homeless, and the city council is moving people to Birmingham as private rents are too expensive in Oxford. Cuts to public services aren’t necessary, cutting taxes for the wealthy isn’t necessary. They’re choices that are harming people in our communities. We need to stand up to a government that is acting only in the interests of the powerful. We need to see our national wealth invested in people through the public services we all rely on throughout our lives – from the NHS to homeless shelters.
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