Austerity leading to soaring homelessness and poor health

CREDIT: This was first seen in OnMedica

Austerity policies are having a significant impact on the soaring level of homelessness in England and elsewhere in Europe, putting people at risk of serious physical and mental health problems and lower life expectancy, experts have argued in the BMJ. In their editorial, they have called for a comprehensive strategy to address both the lack of support services for the vulnerable, and the underlying causes of homelessness such as insufficient affordable housing, OnMedica reports.

The writers, from the University of Oxford, said the number of people officially recorded as sleeping on the streets of England rose from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,751 in autumn 2017, although charities’ estimates are more than double this figure; and the number of homeless families housed by local authorities in temporary accommodation has risen from 50,000 in 2010 to 78,000 in 2017. They added that, in London alone, there are believed to be 225,000 ‘hidden homeless’ 16-25 year old people arranging their own temporary accommodation with friends or family.

They said this rise in homelessness has its roots in welfare reform and the housing market and “is almost entirely accounted for by an increase in families losing their privately rented housing”.

They also cited research showing that people living in damp, cold, or overcrowded housing experience greater physical risks to health; and that insecurity and personal debt lead to strains on mental health. They noted that health effects associated with homelessness include respiratory conditions, depression, anxiety, unintentional injury, excess winter mortality, and skin irritation. Furthermore, single homeless people had an average age at death of 47 years (for 2001-09), compared with 77 years for the general population.

They listed three main causes that they believe lie behind the soaring numbers of homeless: increasingly uneven distribution of housing, with upward pressure on market prices and overcrowding; funding for single homeless hostels and support services being cut by 59% in real terms since 2010 because of austerity policies; and welfare reforms reducing the value of housing benefit paid to lower income families to subsidise their housing costs.

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The authors suggested what can be done to help people caught up in the homelessness crisis. One is the development of specialist primary healthcare services for homeless people, such as Oxford’s Luther Street Medical Centre. Another is the ‘housing first’ model, already shown to be successful in Finland, which provides a secure tenancy for rough sleepers before they are expected to address associated problems such as substance misuse and ill health. They noted that a feasibility study in Liverpool estimated potential annual savings of £3m-£5m, and similar schemes are now being piloted in Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham.

They concluded: “What is needed is a comprehensive strategy that improves services for vulnerable people, an increased supply of affordable housing, more security of tenancies, adequate cash benefits to cover the rising cost of housing, and more efficient use of our existing housing stock.”

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