Want to end rough sleeping? Build social rented homes

Wednesday, 16 January 2019 - 3:38pm

David Tovey, artist and activist with lived experience of homelessness writes about his work on Shelter’s Social Housing Commission.

On Tuesday 8 January, I was in Westminster attending the launch of Shelter’s Social Housing Commission report Building for the future: a vision for social housing. I was one of the 16 independent commissioners, who included parliamentarians Ed Miliband, Sayeeda Warsi and Doreen Lawrence, TV architect George Clark, Grenfell campaigner Ed Daffarn and social tenant Rob Gershon. The launch was attended by housing campaigners, Grenfell survivors, political advisers and housing CEOs.

Six years ago, my life was in a very different place. Having left the armed forces and survived cancer, I was sleeping in a car in London. Worn down by the hardships of destitution, my mental and physical health had deteriorated to the point I didn’t want to carry on. So I attempted to take my own life. I’m only alive today because of the deed of a stranger: Gavin, a park enforcement officer, who spotted me and called an ambulance. His actions not only saved my life, but it gave me a new life. I’m now an international multi-media artist and have exhibited in Tate Modern. I’ve founded the UK’s One Festival of Homeless Arts. I teach art to people experiencing homelessness. And my 'Man on Bench' performances have earned critical acclaim.

Inspired by Gavin, I want to change the lives of the thousands of people who, like me, have been worn down by homelessness. It was very important to me that people with lived experience of rough sleeping were represented on Shelter’s Commission.

The Housing Emergency

More and more people like me are experiencing the sharpest end of our housing crisis. An alarming 277,000 people are now homeless in England, most commonly because they’ve lost private rented accommodation. Employment provides neither protection from becoming homeless nor a route out. More than half (55%) of homeless households are in work. The next 20 years, will see hundreds of thousands more people being forced into homelessness by insecure tenancies and sky-high housing costs.

It’s great that the Government is committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and ending it by 2027. In their Rough Sleeping Strategy, Minister James Brokenshire describes rough sleeping as a complex issue. But, in my view, it’s relatively simple.

Homeless people need homes. Building more social housing is the only way we can end our national housing emergency. But, there aren’t enough. There are currently 1.2m households currently on the waiting list, including over quarter of a million living in unsanitary or overcrowded conditions, and over 144,000 who are homeless. Last year only 177,166 households moved into social housing, of whom 30% had been homeless.

The public want change. After we launched our Commission, the response was overwhelming: over 31,000 people took part in our Big Conversation about social housing. Informed by their responses and commissioned research, we set out a vision for what social housing in England should be over the next 20 years.

Our vision

Our main argument is that for too long, we haven’t invested in social housing, and the social housing we do have is seen as nothing more than a safety net for when things go wrong. This isn’t the vision that Harold Macmillan or Nye Bevan set out. It doesn’t reflect the growing numbers of people who need social housing. We recommend we build 3.1 million new social homes over the next 20 years; an average of around 150,000 a year. This can’t happen overnight, but it is possible – in the mid-1960s, we delivered 150,000 social homes in a single year. This can be achieved again - if it is the major focus of government efforts.

As well as getting people off the streets and out of expensive, insecure temporary accommodation, our vision is that this new generation of social housing provides homes for those who have never been homeless but are struggling in the private rented sector, including young families and older people who will struggle to pay a market rent on a pension. But it’s not just about building more. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, we also call for reforms to the regulation of social housing and making sure that the voices of tenants are heard and acted on.

We hope last week’s launch will be the start of campaigning by Shelter and all those who want to end our appalling housing crisis. But we need your help.

Sign the Shelter petition calling on the government to provide these much-needed homes.