I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of a 28-year-old rough sleeper Roxy in Huddersfield last month. Roxy was a constituent of mine who, according to the Examiner, had lived on the streets for many years and died after contracting pneumonia.
Roxy’s death is not a standalone case and is instead symbolic of the endemic problem of homelessness throughout Britain.
While the number of people rough sleeping fell by roughly 75% between 1998 and 2009 under Labour, this trend has gone into reverse under the Tory government and has more than doubled since 2010. Records state that in 2016 there was a total of 4,134 rough sleepers in England, 172 of whom were in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Any number above zero is unacceptable, yet these figures don’t even reveal the whole story. Given that many people sofa surf or live in temporary accommodation, Government statistics are underestimated and we must think also about the hidden homeless who, while not necessarily spending their nights on the street, are still forced onto the fringes of society. In Kirklees 401 people were accepted by the council as homeless in 2015-16. This number was 35% higher than the previous year. In Windsor and Maidenhead, the local authority for Theresa May’s constituency, only 30 people were accepted by the council as homeless in 2015-16. Reducing homelessness is clearly not a priority for her.
While the Homelessness Reduction Bill is a welcome move in the effort to reduce homelessness, the cutting of housing benefit for 18 to 21 year olds shows a complete contradiction in the Government’s apparent willingness to help society’s most vulnerable. The policy to cut housing benefit, which came into effect on 1st April, has been described by charities such as Crisis and CenterPoint as a destructive move that “could force thousands of young people onto the streets”. While an exemption system has put in place to “ensure that those at ‘serious risk’ mentally or physically, or those likely to suffer ‘significant harm’, are still entitled to housing benefit”, I it will be very hard for people to prove that they are at ‘serious risk’.
Britain proclaims to be a bastion of human rights, yet the ever-increasing number of homeless people that we see each day on the streets poses a threat to such an image. As the Just Fair report argues "the government is failing to meet its obligations to ensure the right to housing of its population". In a developed country such as ours, there is no excuse for a situation in which people do not have access to adequate resources and are forced to sleep on the streets.
One issue that the awful death of this young woman brings up is the barrier to health that is faced by homeless people. These barriers include a lack of access to services, particularly for those who suffer with mental health problems. Given the UN General Assembly resolution which states that people should have "physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity", barriers to healthcare are inexcusable.
I recently asked the Secretary of State for Health what steps he has taken to ensure that homeless people have adequate access to healthcare. While the Department pledged their commitment to promoting better access to healthcare services for homeless people, real life cases like that of Roxy reveals that this has not come occurred. Clearly, much more must be done to ensure that others do not face the same fate.
Furthermore, individual experiences of healthcare are often gendered, and barriers to healthcare are particularly a problem for women. For example, a major issue for homeless women is being able to afford sanitary products. This was brought to the attention of the Government by Paula Sheriff, my neighbouring MP and a long-time campaigner for the VAT on tampons to be abolished. In a recent Commons debate on period poverty Paula stated that “the horror of having to choose between stealing sanitary products and going without” is one that “women in one of the most advanced industrial nations on earth should not face”.
I cannot give enough praise to charities such as the Welcome Centre and Huddersfield Change Project who provide vital services and resources to low income families and homeless people. However, it shouldn’t be left to the voluntary sector to provide this support. Given that adequate shelter is a basic human right, it ought to be the responsibility of our Government to ensure a realisation of this right.
Such a shameful state of affairs can be attributed to the Conservatives’ seven years of failure on housing. We must fight the Tories on this and I will continue to push for better service provision and more affordable housing in my constituency and country.