Tackling Homelessness Requires A Whole Society Response - And That Could Start With The Budget

Andy Burnham
Today's Budget could mark a moment of real change.

Today's Budget could mark a moment of real change. The Chancellor could stand up and say that cuts to councils, Police and other crucial services have gone too far. He could acknowledge the growing homelessness crisis as the most visible sign of that and pledge to do something about it. But I am not holding my breath.

It is clear from walking around any of our large towns and cities that austerity has torn large holes in the safety net that used to be there under all people and all communities. Record numbers are falling through and ending up huddled in our doorways.

A few years ago, Chris Conlin from my former constituency of Leigh suffered a family bereavement and ended up homeless. I knew him fairly well and used to chat him at his usual perch outside Tesco, encouraging him to get support. Earlier this month, I was stunned to hear the news that Chris had died from pneumonia. He was 31.

That young people to be dying on our streets in 2017 is frankly scandalous.

Here in Greater Manchester we are doing what we can to deal with the homelessness crisis unfolding before our eyes.

In my manifesto, I pledged to end rough sleeping in our city-region by 2020 and we are working flat out to achieve it. We are creating ground-breaking new solutions to ensure people get the help they need. But our hard work could all be undone by today's Budget and that is so frustrating.

The simple test I am setting for this Budget is whether it makes our mission to end rough sleeping easier or harder. My fear is that it will be the latter but I will give the Government the benefit of the doubt until the Chancellor has sat down. The headline measure is what he decides to do on Universal Credit. Cutting the waiting times from six to four weeks does not solve the problem. It still leaves people without money and at risk of falling into a debt spiral. On this issue, a radical rethink if Universal Credit is not to make the homelessness crisis a whole lot worse.

Universal Credit pilots in our city-region show the damage that has been done by the current system. Figures in one area of Greater Manchester show that 25% of tenants on Universal Credit are having legal action taken against them to recover rent, as well as possession proceedings. Another area has tenants on Universal Credit with rent arrears of 80%, as opposed to 37% of tenants where Universal Credit is not claimed. The risk of homelessness due to Universal Credit is shockingly clear. In the face of this evidence, the Government should stop it and order a major rethink.

Whatever happens today, we will plough on with our radical plans in Greater Manchester.

Yesterday we announced new measures to save lives as winter draws in. All 10 Greater Manchester local authorities have agreed to rip up the rule book in order to make a real difference to those in dire need of help.

Legally, emergency support for homeless people is only required after three consecutive days of freezing weather. We're changing that here to just one day. No longer will some of our most vulnerable citizens have to endure continuous sub-zero conditions before they receive help.

Help will come in the form of emergency shelter across our 10 boroughs. Each borough will decide the measure of support given, but all will provide much needed safety, warmth and support. Lives will be saved.

More significantly, about 200 rough sleepers in Greater Manchester will also see the benefits of a ground-breaking new partnership between public and voluntary sectors, housing providers and private funders. A £1.8 million social impact bond has been agreed which will give a home and intensive support to some of our rough-sleepers with the most entrenched problems. It is a real breakthrough.

Too often people are turned down in their attempts to secure housing by a lack of necessary documents. We've changed this so that people will have free access documents such as birth certificates. We will not let bureaucracy stand in the way of making sure people are safe and warm.

To be fair to the Government, they have allocated over £3 million to Greater Manchester as part of a bid to make us a homelessness Trailblazer area. But I've got news for them. You can't just write one cheque and think you have dealt with a problem as complex as this.

When confronted with news like the death of Chris Conlin, we all need to stop, reflect and challenge ourselves to do more. That includes me. I will continue to donate 15% of my salary to the Mayor's Homelessness Fund and I will urge others to do what they can. But tackling this crisis requires a whole society response - and that includes the Government stepping up too.