Comment Central’s Deputy Editor, Ted Jeffery highlights the importance of treating homelessness as a Public Health issue and that actually it’s time we scrapped the Vagrancy Act. 

It’s been a longstanding tradition that homelessness is only really perceived as a crisis when we start to enter the season of goodwill and blustery winds. Yet even when it’s receiving copious amounts of scrutiny, I have an overwhelming feeling that we are not treating the issue with the respect it deserves.

As someone who wants to make sure homelessness is not subject to a constant game of political football, I take the view that it’s worth considering more than just rough sleeping and housing. The main issue lies with how the administration sees it. The current arrangement sees ‘Homelessness’ languishing under the Ministry of Communities & Local Government. However, when you peel back the layers and invest some time in finding out why it is that an individual is found to be in a state of homelessness, you soon realise that it deserves the attention of more than one government department.

Targets have been set for the government to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it by 2027. With that in mind, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and whether or not we will see a drastic increase in the cost of living mean there is no way of knowing whether or not the next government will be able to meet these goals. Furthermore, getting an individual off the streets and into temporary accommodation doesn’t automatically mean “mission accomplished”.

There is one innovative digital approach to homelessness which seems to be going down a storm. The social impact organisation Beam is all about helping homeless people get into work. It’s a straightforward structure in which anyone can choose to fund a homeless person, while they train to become either a teaching assistant, project manager or security guard. This organisation is not only thinking about how to keep individuals off the street – it’s about making sure they can continue to progress and get their lives back on track.

The government could learn a great deal from an organisation like Beam. In the 2018 Homeless Link Executive Summary, it listed the top three homelessness prevention initiatives for young people as: 

  • Education in schools on life skills, healthy relationships and support;
  • Mediation for dealing with tensions in and around family life before they reach boiling point;
  • Early intervention during childhood targeting the family, not just the young person.

However, while these all featured in the top three most effective solutions, they also flopped at the bottom of the list of services actually provided by Local Authorities.

It is precisely for this reason that the Department for Education as well as the Department of Health should seek to welcome homeless on board as part of their operations. Homelessness is clearly about more than just rough sleeping. It’s evident there is a need for training and life skills as well as the support initiatives to focus on the mental well-being of those on the streets, or at risk of finding themselves there. Only once it is featured in more than one Whitehall department will we see it being properly treated like a Public Health issue.

There is one final thing as well… The Vagrancy Act. For those that aren’t aware the Vagrancy Act came into play in 1824. The act criminalised individuals who were either rough sleeping or begging. As of Thursday 5th December 2019, this act still remains in effect in England and Wales. But why??? This is an act which criminalises and individuals plea for help. How can we start to even think about dealing with this issue when actually as a society we can’t even recognise the matter as a Public Health issue, but instead as a crime. We should be giving those on the streets a helping hand and not vilify them with an inhumane act.

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