The number of rough sleepers in one London borough has leapt by 647%. What’s gone wrong?
Walking back from the park early on Monday morning I counted three people sleeping in a hedge along the railway tracks that lead from Euston station, and quickly forgot about it. Five years ago the sight would have been very unusual. Now, every morning on the way to work I walk past several people asleep beneath railway bridges, zipped up in tents along the canal, packed inside cardboard boxes in shop doorways or hidden beneath damp, muddy duvets on park benches. It is so routine that I forget to be shocked.
Rough sleeping in the north London borough of Camden has increased by 647%, according to government figuresreleased on Thursday. The huge rise is accounted for in part by an official underestimate of the problem last year, but no one who lives here will be surprised to see it confirmed that there has been a sharp jump in the numbers of people sleeping on the streets.
Camden reported the largest increase in rough sleeping of any area in England, from 17 rough sleepers in 2016 (an optimistic estimate) to 127 counted this year.
Ten years ago there were almost no rough sleepers in Camden. So what’s gone wrong? The Labour-run council says it’s clear that cuts are to blame. Councillor Nadia Shah said: “Rough sleeping in Camden is now at unprecedented levels. This is an appalling situation made worse by the politics of austerity that have led to cuts in services across the country.”
Nationally, welfare reform and cuts to benefits have increased financial insecurity, while soaring rents and reductions in the permitted housing benefit payments have left many people with an impossible gap between rent owing and income. On top of this, changes to the way housing benefit is paid have increasingly meant money no longer goes straight to the landlord but to the tenant, which has led to a sharp rise in arrears and evictions.
Huge pressure on mental health services means vulnerable people are not getting the support they need. Drug and alcohol addiction services are struggling financially. Reductions to local authority budgets mean Camden’s funding from central government will have fallen by half between 2010 and 2020. In 2019-20 the council is forecast to receive £106m, down from the £241m received in 2010-11.
The picture in Camden is complicated by the arrival of a large number of eastern European migrants who are usually working but are unable to afford London rents and are not eligible for any housing benefit support. Camden said around 50 of the 127 people counted sleeping rough during the November survey were from Romania, many of them shunted into Camden by aggressive Home Office and police inspection policies in other boroughs around London.