Open up empty buildings for rough sleepers, say Greens

‘It is shameful that in a nation as rich as the UK thousands are still facing freezing temperatures on the streets.’ Figures published today show that the number of people sleeping on the streets has risen in the major English cities since 2017.

Empty homes in Bradford, 2010
Empty homes in Bradford, 2010

Image: Flickr / / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Empty homes in Bradford, 2010

Green World

The number of rough sleepers in England has fallen only marginally since 2017, with numbers still almost 3,000 higher than they were in 2010.

The official figures, published today (31 January) by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, show that 4,677 people were counted as sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2018.

While the overall figure for England has dropped slightly, by two per cent, since autumn 2017, regional numbers are growing, especially in the major cities: Birmingham saw a rise of 60 per cent, Manchester 31 per cent and London, where 1,283 people were counted sleeping rough, a rise of 13 per cent.

Of the 10 local authorities with the highest number of people sleeping on the streets, the London Borough of Enfield reported the highest change, with an increase of 797 per cent, going from nine people in 2017 to 78 in 2018, while Brighton and Hove has improved its figures, seeing a reduction of 64 per cent.

However, the long-term accuracy of these figures is called into question by the method of measurement: the figures are calculated based on a ‘street count’ carried out once a year by local authorities or on estimates extrapolated from the number of people already known to councils via homelessness services and charities.

This means that people not on the radar of their local council or those not spotted during a count, as well as those people who are ‘couchsurfing’ without a permanent residence, may slip through the net – suggesting figures could be higher than those reported.

The government does acknowledge these data limitations and also points out that weather can have a significant impact on the number of people visibly sleeping on the streets at any given point, with poor weather forcing more people to try and find indoor shelter and thus reducing the number counted.

Sian Berry, Co-leader of the Green Party and London Assembly Member, commented that empty buildings should be utilised to provide shelter for people without homes. She said: “Rough sleeping is not falling anywhere near far or fast enough. It is shameful that in a nation as rich as the UK thousands are still facing freezing temperatures on the streets.

"With the right political will there is action we can take right now to give people shelter, and I urge the government and local authorities to consider measures like opening up Britain’s many empty buildings.”

In 2017, the number of ‘long-term’ vacant homes in England rose for the first time in a decade, standing at over 200,000 that have been unoccupied for six months or more.

Green Party policy states that empty homes are a waste of valuable resources and that local authorities should make more proactive use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders – the legal instruments to enable councils to take over the management of disused buildings – and work with self-help cooperatives to bring homes into use. Self-help housing cooperatives involve groups of local people bringing empty properties into use, often in the form of affordable housing or community facilities for people who might otherwise be homeless.

On the wider causes of homelessness, Berry added: “In the longer term we need to see an end to policies like Universal Credit and benefit sanctions which push people into poverty, and real commitment to policies which help deal with the causes of homelessness so no one is forced to sleep rough in the first place.”