The Almshouse Association CEO Nick Phillips comments on the new homeless laws

Rarely do I comment on homeless issues, given the thorough coverage by our colleagues at Shelter, Crisis and other specialised homeless charities. However, when I read about the proposed new laws aimed at driving homeless people off the streets or be faced with prosecution, I couldn’t help but question if we are losing our way.

In a nation of great wealth, the sight of thousands of people enduring nights on our streets and hundreds of thousands residing in temporary accommodation prompts profound reflection. Who, I wonder, are these laws intended to punish?

Recent Government data has unveiled a stark reality: nearly 4,000 individuals slept rough on a single autumn night across England in 2023, marking a distressing 27% increase from the previous year.

This surge in rough sleeping is just one facet of a larger crisis, with an estimated 242,000 households grappling with various forms of homelessness in England. From sofa surfing to enduring temporary accommodation to facing the harshness of sleeping rough, the spectrum of homelessness casts a wide net of suffering. Recent research from Crisis sheds light on the harrowing experiences faced by those living on the streets.

Shockingly, nine out of every ten people sleeping rough have been subjected to violence or abuse, underscoring the urgent need for action to address this humanitarian crisis.

Surely we must consider the ramifications of implementing such laws?  OK, it would shield the majority of commuters, theatre-goers and ‘us ordinary folk’ going about our daily business from the heart wrenching sight of those having to sleep rough, effectively hiding the visible manifestations of homelessness from public view. If that is the objective, the law could work. Perhaps it is bad for tourism or seen as a shameful example of a failing system? But this concealment comes at a significant cost.

Pushing individuals experiencing homelessness into secluded, obscure areas could render them more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Forced into the shadows, they would be at greater risk of encountering physical harm. Fear of prosecution could also mean others remain trapped in situations of domestic violence. What would the law punish homeless people for?

It’s probably fair to acknowledge that very few individuals opt to live rough as a deliberate lifestyle choice. The circumstances leading to homelessness are often complex and multi-faceted, rooted in systemic issues such as poverty, family breakdown, loss of job, lack of affordable housing and inadequate social support systems. As such, addressing homelessness requires compassionate and comprehensive solutions that address its underlying causes, rather than punitive measures that merely displace the issue.

In 1572, the Poor Laws were introduced to deal with the rising number of homeless people. It was felt that charity, and the Church could no longer manage. I do wonder if we are now at the point where the State is admitting it can no longer support the homeless and we need to re-engage and encourage philanthropy and the Church to step in where the state is not able to cope?

The wisdom shared by one of the founders of The Almshouse Association following the introduction of the Welfare State resonates profoundly with me: “almshouses were too important to leave to the State.” Indeed, evidence from across Europe, where almshouses disappeared as they were subsumed into the state housing provisions, supports this assertion. In light of their historical and ongoing relevance, it’s fortunate that almshouses – the oldest form of affordable community housing – persist in the UK today, providing over 36,000 people with safe and secure homes throughout the country.

With the evolving landscape of housing needs, philanthropic support is becoming increasingly vital to meet the growing demand.

Almshouses represent more than just a housing solution; they embody a tradition of community care and support that can be life changing for all generations. As we navigate the challenges of the contemporary housing crises, preserving and expanding the reach of almshouses would be one of the solutions to help resolve the housing crisis and support the homeless.

I agree with the law makers in one area – we should not have to see homeless people on our street – but we would rather know that they are in a warm safe secure home.

After all, it could happen to anyone of us, at any time...