The Tories’ new Homelessness Minister was blasted last night for saying she does not know why rough sleeping has soared in recent years.
Heather Wheeler denied suggestions council cuts and slashing benefits had fuelled the rise.
Asked about the reasons for the rise in rough sleeping, she told the Guardian: “In truth, I don’t know.
On a visit to a housing project in Glasgow, Wheeler said she remained “totally confident” she would not have to act on her pledge to resign should she fail to meet the Conservative manifesto commitment of halving rough sleeping by 2022, and eradicating it by 2027. “We’re going to move heaven and earth to get that done,” she promised.
In a recent interview, the Guardian spoke to Jon Sparkes, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, who sits on Wheeler’s new rough sleeping advisory group for England. He expressed his frustration at the Westminster government’s failure to recognise the influence of welfare reforms – such as the housing benefit freeze, the household benefit cap and the universal credit rollout – on homelessness.
Wheeler was asked on Thursday about the reasons for the rise in rough sleeping, which has increased in England for seven consecutive years; official figures show 4,751 people slept outside overnight in 2017. The MP for South Derbyshire said: “In truth, I don’t know. That’s one of the interesting things for me to find out over the last eight weeks that I’ve been doing the job. We’ve looked at the different cohorts, and in London the number of veterans who are rough sleepers is down to about 2%.”
Commending the “amazing job” done by armed forces charities, she went on to describe a second “classic” reason for rough sleeping: coming out of prison with no support. “It’s very difficult. We also have a real problem in London with people coming over [mainly from Europe] for jobs, sofa surfing with friends, and then the job changes and they have a problem.”
Wheeler was visiting Turning Point Scotland’s Housing First project, part of an internationally successful model that places the most entrenched rough sleepers in permanent housing before they deal with addiction, mental illness or other challenges. It works on the assumption that people make the most progress when in a stable home, rather than a hostel or shared temporary accommodation.
In November, the Conservative government pledged £28m for similar pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Liverpool. A government-funded study in Liverpool concluded that Housing First could save £4m compared with current homelessness services in the area.
Describing the appeal of Housing First, Wheeler asked: “What does ‘good’ look like? Having 80% of tenancies renewed. Drug rehab, booze rehab, mental health issues … they can get sorted so much better when the wraparound care is there.”
Scotland, which had almost eliminated homelessness after pioneering legislation was passed by Holyrood in 2003, has recently experienced a similar increase, with an estimated 5,000 rough sleepers across the year.
The homelessness and rough sleeping action group, commissioned by the Scottish government and chaired by Sparkes, set out its first recommendations in November, which were immediately implemented. They included giving credit cards to frontline workers who need to make emergency purchases for rough sleepers, and rapid rehousing in settled accommodation rather than leaving people for months or years in temporary placements.
Wheeler said she was “mulling over” the action group’s recommendations and their applicability south of the border: “I want to come up here and learn about what goes on.”
Asked whether she perceived a difference in attitude to homelessness between Holyrood and Westminster, Wheeler said: “Actually, no. I think that maybe England is a tad more cautious in that we are very keen that we have proper pilots and we assess it.
“And I regret to say that the problem with the supply of affordable housing in England is much, much, much larger than Scotland. I find it fascinating that there is no private-sector rental used at all to place people up here – it’s all local authority and housing association, because you have supply.”
Asked whether she had heard from Glasgow service users that welfare cuts were leading to greater domestic insecurity, and if she felt at odds with other government departments in her mission, she said: “I didn’t hear that, which is refreshing.
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