Britain and Homelessness – a 16th Century Problem?

2017 has arrived with the most scandalous homelessness figures for a generation. Government figures indicate that in the last year 43,140 families were classified as homeless by their local council, an increase of a staggering 32% over the past five years. 4,134 found themselves to sleeping outside in 2016, up 16% from the previous year.

The government’s failure to invest in affordable homes, alongside cuts to housing benefit and severe lack of funding to shelter services, not to mention refusal to regulate the private rental sector, has shaped a culture of insecurity and desperation. The UK Statistics Authority just last year even questioned the legitimacy of government records themselves. They judged statistics released by the Department for Communities and Local Government inadequate and by no means of quality standard to be considered ‘official’ statistics, with figures only providing ‘snapshots’ and estimates which greatly understated the severity of the issue. But why does the world’s 5th largest economy possess a long-term issue with homelessness?


Homeless by a Wall

The UK’s attitude towards homelessness derives primarily from the Poor Law of 1530, which legislated the idea that the ‘indignant poor have no stake in our society and are not deserving of any special favours from it’. The Poor Law criminalised unlicensed begging and even homelessness itself, putting responsibility in the hands of local parishes, and hence demonising the poor and homeless. 1834 saw a new Poor Law for Victorian England, which substituted Christian hospitality for brutal workhouses which punished society’s neediest. This is following the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which had sentenced beggars, billed “incorrigible rogues”, to imprisonment or hard labour. In the context of reformist agitation generated by groups such as the Chartists, the government suppressed the poor in the new industrial towns to curb unrest. The Industrial revolution had left homes in these new industrial towns hugely overcrowded and unsanitary, with housing issues never addressed until the creation of the Welfare State.


Poor Law 1834

The National Assistance Act of 1948 was designed to provide emergency housing for those in urgent need, and thus became the first legislation not to view homelessness as a criminal issue. However, although attitudes were somewhat altered, this short-term support failed to properly address the severe lack of housing which was primarily behind homelessness, a parallel to what we can see today. Labour’s 1977 Housing Act did identify that homelessness arises from housing deficiency, but still the Victorian ‘blame’ culture was rampant, with MP Ronald Bell arguing “… There must be two clearly defined categories of accommodation: healthy but uncomfortable accommodation for the bad cases, and other accommodation for people who are not so blameworthy …”. Again, however, the act remained a case of ‘assistance’, with no duty on local authorities to find ‘reasonable’ accommodation or furthermore provide adequate homes, highlighted by Lord Brightman in the Pulhofer v. Hillingdon case 1986.

The Conservative governments of 1979-97 came alongside severe cuts to local authorities which inevitably exacerbated homelessness alongside the rapid loss of council property under the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme. The 1996 Housing Act further diminished the duty of local authorities and removed the homeless from ‘reasonable preference’ in council house allocations. This was reversed by the incoming Labour government alongside the establishment of the Cabinet Office Social Exclusion Unit and the Rough Sleepers Unit, which coordinated all London homelessness programmes. These schemes plus the huge investment in council housing in the latter years of the government was effective; in 2009 the officially recorded number of rough sleepers was 464, a record low. However, the financial crash and coalition austerity measures have allowed this to spiral since they left office.

“It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them.”

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

In the week where Manchester residents protested the anti-homeless spikes erected around buildings in their city centre, a private member’s bill headed by Conservative MP Bob Blackman has won the support of the government. The Homelessness Reduction Bill obliges councils to prevent the homelessness of anyone within 56 days, ending the discrimination on single men and women. Whilst supportive of this legislation, the shadow housing minister was critical of the proposal’s long-term effectiveness, with the £48 million funding ceasing after two years. Labour has recently committed itself to eradicating homelessness if it wins political office. However, with their election prospects looking evermore bleak, and the economic impact of Brexit, the future for the homeless is gloomy. Charities such as Shelter will continue to bear the brunt of a homelessness watershed, whilst Parliament presses on with issues such as the £250bn renewal of our nuclear armoury. And with the most desperate members of society continually villainised in the right-wing press, it’s also clear that Victorian attitudes still hold significance in 21st Century Britain.

References/Further Reading:

Orwell, G. (1961). Down and out in Paris and London: a novel. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Hudson, A. The Law on Homelessness. (1997) Sweet & Maxwell []

Fitzpatrick, Kemp & Klinker. Single homelessness – An overview of research in Britain (2000) []



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