Impossible choices after impossible choices lead to homelessness

The author is CEO of Crisis

As we approach Christmas, the situation for homelessness services in the UK is as bleak as it has ever been. Temperatures are dropping, and as the days grow shorter, the realities of the emergency begin to set in.

Almost a million households across the UK expect to face eviction this winter. Four out of 10 low-income families have to skip meals to pay housing costs. More and more people are being pushed ever closer to the trauma and indignation of homelessness.

In our latest research, Crisis 2000 surveyed low-income households across England, Scotland and Wales. The results show the economic and social damage inflicted on people. It demonstrates how their incomes, and their options, are being squeezed more and more every day.

But while the numbers are deeply worrying, it is the real testimonies that reveal the severity of this crisis. In one of the most disturbing interviews, a contestant discusses the decision to pawn her wedding ring. “I’d had that ring for most of my life,” she says. “I pawned it . . . that month I thought, ‘Great, I can buy some food and maybe pay an extra bill or put a little more gas in the car’, but you can’t go ahead with that because I don’t have any more jewelry.”

Some discuss the impossible choices forced upon them – having to choose between food or fuel or housing – as part of their daily routine. Others have to turn down offers of help because they cannot afford the travel costs.

This is a widespread crisis and our services see the impact every single day. An increase in people sleeping in their cars. An increase in families who can no longer feed or clothe their children. A rise in poor sleep across much of England, with official statistics showing an increase of more than a thousand people between June and September this year.

Perhaps most worryingly, our services are reporting an increase in demand from people who have never had problems with their home before. They come, embarrassed and unsure, to say that the pressure on their income has just become too great and they don’t know where to go. It includes a rise in the number of people claiming support while in work, with official figures showing that over 20,000 households facing homelessness in England in January to June were in full-time work, more than at any other time since this type of data collection began.

All these people are being let down. We and other organizations will continue to support them, but while our immediate priority is helping those at risk of homelessness to keep their homes, the research also shows the deeper damage being done to the UK’s communities. Even for those willing to endure it, the cost of living crisis is ripping away at the threads that add value to our lives.

The government must start formulating positive policies around the prevention and end of homelessness. New analysis from Crisis and Zoopla shows that fewer than one in 12 private properties listed in England last year were affordable within housing benefit levels, but we know that more than one in three tenants rely on this benefit to help meet their rent costs. Investment in housing benefit will be the fastest and most effective way to avert an increase in homelessness.

Meanwhile, a cap on rent increases, so that they are tied to inflation, would immediately reduce the pressure on those struggling. In the longer term, the Government must deliver truly affordable housing to ease the pressure on our communities.

Many of the people we see every day are usually just about able to keep their heads above water, but are now sinking. They are forced to sit and watch as the basic pleasures in life – affording the bus fare to meet a friend or buying a child a Christmas present – ​​are pulled further and further from their reach. They may not be dying, but this is not living either.

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