Homelessness is a dreadful thing at any time of year. In the cold, wet and dark of winter it must be even worse. And when Christmas comes the nightmare of having nowhere to stay is surely almost impossible to bear.
So an alarming new report in the Westcountry from homelessness charity, Shelter, revealing a shock rise in the number of people with nowhere to lay their head, or fearful they could lose their home, needs to be taken seriously.
As the charity points out, it is not only down-and-outs who face the daily struggle with that most basic of needs, a shelter. The recession has brought many families to the brink of despair as costs rise and wages remain low. Calls to Shelter from people worried they are about to be out of the streets have risen, along with those from the destitute who are already sleeping rough.
The charity reports an increase of 84% in calls to their helpline in the South West over the past three years. Our region is one that, outwardly, looks relatively prosperous. But it is clear the high cost of housing – both rented and for sale – leaves those who live on the breadline unable to find an affordable place to live. Tragic stories, of the 21-year-old girl killed in last week’s storms because she was sleeping rough in a tent and the 41-year-old man who died of hypothermia sleeping rough in Totnes put human faces on what is, for many, a problem that – although they are aware of it – remains largely out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. With an estimated 2,000 children set to wake up on Christmas morning in the South West this year with no proper and permanent roof over their heads, there is clearly much that needs to be done. Shelter, along with other charities, local authorities and emergency housing organisations do their best and can respond to the most severe emergencies. But longer term solutions are needed.
Earlier this week Conservative planning minister Nick Boles called for more building in the countryside to meet rising housing needs. He suggested the proportion of open land used for new homes needed to increase by up to 3% if housing needs were to be met. There are, needless to say, many problems with this approach, not least the fact that providing sufficient food to meet the needs of a growing global population is as important as providing accommodation and building in the countryside will take up valuable farmland.
Most significantly, however, any change in the planning rules is going to take years. What’s needed is a more streamlined approach to get more private housing for rent into use, more conversions of city centre premises approved and more in-filling in towns and villages with well-designed, affordable properties built. Quite apart from the human misery that growing homelessness brings, it is a waste of essential skills and resources because homeless people are less able to work, and contribute to their communities. Solutions must be found.