Back in September, I wrote of one of Suella Braverman’s previous high-profile interventions – her speech in the United States on immigration and asylum – that the Home Secretary has developed the unfortunate habit of addressing important issues in a deeply counter-productive way:
“…there is a strong prima facie case for at least reviewing the current international arrangements and seeing if they need adjusting to the very different world of the 2020s. But lumping that case in with a broad-spectrum broadside against legal immigration and multiculturalism seems more likely to galvanise and maximise the opposition than to peel off open-minded waverers.”
One could say the same thing about her recent comments on rough sleepers and tents – with the proviso that it is much less obvious that this latest cause is a significant issue in the way immigration is.
Viewed in the round, there is a perfectly defensible version of Braverman’s case. The Government has announced its intention to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which makes begging and rough sleeping illegal, and “promised £2 billion over three years to help get people off the streets”, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Should this support materialise, and be adequate to the task of making shelter available to everyone who needs it, it would radically change the context in which charities give tents to rough sleepers. If accommodation in a proper shelter was available, and had been declined, it would be perfectly legitimate for the Government to crack down on what is surely a small minority choosing to live on the streets, for whatever reason.
The importance of the qualification, though, is obvious. Because unless and until that shelter space becomes available, it’s a bit meaningless to talk about people sleeping rough voluntarily. Some will be, for various reasons, but many won’t. How are charities, or the government, supposed to be able to tell the difference?
And if the promised measures do come through, the Home Secretary’s focus is still a strange one. A genuine, comprehensive programme to tackle rough sleeping would be a substantial and extremely positive achievement – so why not focus on that?
Crackdowns around the edges of the new policy might be perfectly sensible; one can especially see why the Home Office would support them, as one group it is plausible to imagine trying to evade a new shelter programme would be those in Britain illegally and trying to evade the attention of the immigration authorities.
But it’s still a maladroit focus for the messaging when details about the new support package are thin on the ground, and much of the United Kingdom is in the grips of a fierce housing and rental crisis which leaves many people in precarious living situations.
This also isn’t America; there may be areas with unsightly collections of tents, but we do not have tent cities the way some big cities in the US do.
The Home Secretary claims that “unless we step in now to stop this, British cities will go the way of places in the US like San Francisco and Los Angeles”, but given our two countries’ very different sizes and welfare systems it’s not clear why this should be – America has a very thin safety net, a very large population, and very high internal mobility, so people from all over tend to congregate in a few cities.
(A small thing but it is also wrong to conflate homelessness, which includes for example people living in their cars or couch-to-couch, with rough sleeping, where people are actually on the streets.)
That same crisis, of course, complicates finding a solution to rough sleeping. With millions stuck in cramped or outright substandard accommodations, often forced to accept long commutes, and paying record shares of their post-tax income for the privilege, handing out permanent residences becomes politically fraught, not to mention morally complicated, for the state.
Combined with the high up-front costs and scarcity of stock, that makes a so-called housing first approach such as Findland’s – which makes provision of guaranteed accommodation the first step towards helping a rough sleeper – difficult to pull off in Britain.
But there are aspects which could be emulated. For example, the Finns make their supported housing cost the same as housing benefit, and mandate that residents need to be in work, education, or training in order to secure their tenancy. Such an approach helps to ensure what housing is available serves as a real first step on the path toward self-sufficiency for those able to make that journey, some of whom can then move on into the private sector and free up the space for a new tenant.
(The best long-term solution, of course, could be to build enough houses and flats to close the shortfall of four to five million residences at the root of the crisis, and thus ensure that something as basic as housing is no longer priced as a scarce and luxury good.)