Today I am hosting a summit on homelessness. The event will bring together the region’s local authorities, MPs, leading organisations – such as South Yorkshire Housing Association and Crisis – and people who have first-hand experience of homelessness as we seek to eradicate homelessness in South Yorkshire.
We have seen a rapid increase in the number of people sleeping rough on our streets in recent years. You only have to walk along Cheapside, or through the underpass between the Alhambra and Sheffield Road, to see that the numbers of rough sleepers in Barnsley have risen in recent years.
As I came away from the Remembrance Sunday service last week, I saw someone in a sleeping bag in the car park on County Way – someone who had nowhere else to turn. It is simply a disgrace that, in the 21st Century, people are left without a permanent home.
The rise in homelessness is not inevitable – it is the result of national policies and a government that has the wrong priorities. The UK is a relatively wealthy country – the world’s fifth largest economy – there is no excuse for thousands of people to be left without a secure, stable home.
But still, rough sleeping has increased by 935% since 2005, and in 2017, an estimated 4,751 people had to sleep rough on every single night of the year.
There is already some great work being done by local councils and charities to support homeless people. Last month, Barnsley Council launched a new Homeless Prevention and Rough Sleeping Strategy to work collaboratively with a number of local organisations to tackle the increase in the numbers of people becoming homeless in Barnsley over the next five years.
I recently visited Centrepoint in Barnsley to see how hard they work to help young people who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless; and I am very pleased that today the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will also pay Centrepoint a visit, in recognition of their important work.
These organisations do great work, but they are left reacting to crises most of the time. Instead we need to come up with long-term solutions to get people off the streets and prevent homelessness in the first place.
We need to give local councils the power and the money to start building council houses again, to replenish the stock that was lost under ‘Right to Buy’, which has never been replaced.
Too often, those who are left homeless are also struggling with addiction to drink or drugs, or are suffering from serious mental health problems. Even if they did not have addiction problems when they first became homeless, many develop such issues after spending time sleeping rough.
That is why any serious attempt to reduce the level of homelessness needs to be done alongside investing in addiction and mental health services – which this Government has cut to the bone.
And, although rough sleeping is the most visible sign of our homelessness crisis, there is also a hidden epidemic of homelessness – people who are staying in bed and breakfasts and temporary accommodation; or are ‘sofa surfing’ by living with friends – which requires just as much attention and resources to solve.
Money alone will not solve our homelessness crisis, but it is an important start. That is why we are launching a Sheffield City Region Homelessness Network, to co-ordinate the response to eradicating rough sleeping and homelessness.
By working together, we can take steps towards ending homelessness and putting a stable, secure roof over everyone’s heads.
This article was originally published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 16th November 2018.