The financial crisis of 2008 and austerity policies by the government have left a lasting impact on the UK’s social landscape.
As British members of parliament (MPs) busied themselves with the latest Brexit drama on December 20 2018, Gyula Remes, a 43-year-old homeless Hungarian national died outside Westminster Parliament.
The death briefly registered in national headlines and amongst MPs, but the Brexit debate quickly eclipsed Remes’s death and he became just another statistic in what has become a national crisis.
In autumn 2018, the government released a report that showed a 165 percent increase in ‘rough sleeping’ in the UK since 2010, when the current Conservative government took power. The government defines rough sleeping as people who are sleeping in the streets or in open air.
The homeless charity Shelter, which helps millions of people struggling to find a home, reported that more than 320,000 people are homeless, sleeping on the streets or stuck in temporary accommodation. And the increase shows no signs of slowing.
TRT World contacted the office of the Mayor of London who said: “We’re currently in the middle of this year’s Mayoral Rough Sleeping campaign and have raised more than £200k from public donations.”
According to a report commissioned by the homeless charity Crisis, the cost of dealing with homelessness is in the billions.
The scale of the crisis facing the UK is a result of several trends that have come together to create a perfect storm.
When the current Conservative government took power in 2010, it enacted a series of austerity policies that saw government departments deeply slash their budgets across the board.
The net result was a weakened social safety net, which resulted in millions of people sinking into poverty, homelessness and, in some cases, suicide.
An independent Social Metrics Commission produced a report in September last year entitled A new measure of poverty for the UK, which found that more than “14.2 million people in the UK population are in poverty”. Amongst them, an astonishing 8.4 million working-age adults and 4.5 million children were in poverty.
As a result of the economic crisis in 2008, Britain experienced a sharp drop in living standards as the state prioritised the need to bail out banks.
The economic crisis also led to a stagnation in wages, with people under 30 expected to earn less today then they would have in 2008.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Professor Philip Alston pointed out that for such a rich country it seemed “patently unjust” for so many people to be living in poverty, urging the Conservative government to take urgent action.
“Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centres have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres have been sold off,” added Professor Alston.
Local government saw by far the largest cuts between 2010 and 2015, losing over half of their funding. As a result, local government has resorted to selling assets to fund basic services.
Dealing with the challenge of homelessness requires a multi-pronged strategy, according to Rick Henderson, Chief Executive of Homeless Link, a charity dealing with homeless people.
“We must fix our broken welfare system, tackle the poverty that so many people are living in, build more genuinely affordable homes, and work back from years of under-investment in critical support services – our health and mental health services, drug and alcohol services, domestic violence services, and a challenged criminal justice system,” said Henderson.
When TRT World contacted the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, it referred to previous press releases stating the initiatives dealing with rising homelessness. When asked what impact austerity policies have had on the rise of poverty and homelessness in the UK, the spokesperson did not respond.
London has reported the highest levels of homelessness, with almost 170,000 people lacking permanent accommodation.
With the UK government increasingly focused on Brexit, its ability to deal with a host of other more pressing issues remains unaddressed.