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Caroline Spelman: More joined-up thinking needed on homelessness

Speech to CRISIS conference on homelessness

"Homelessness is one of those policy areas that really touches you on a human level - and it's not the sort of issue you can play party politics with.

It would be wrong of me to stand here and deliver a partisan speech about how the government has failed and we have all the answers.

The fact is that is some areas the Government has had success and in others it hasn't.

Of course we don't have all the answers - no one political party has - but we have quite a few ideas to bring to the table and I'd like to share some of those with you now.

I think tackling homeless needs a two-pronged approach.

We need a strategy for helping those already homeless into accommodation, employment and a sustainable pattern of living, but we also need a strategy for addressing the factors which drive people into homelessness in the first place.

If we want to see people move from short term accommodation into their own homes, then we need to be providing them with appropriate and affordable housing. Housing like that is currently in very short supply.

We need housing supply to be increased but it needs to come in at an affordable level which all too often it isn't.

As well as actually building more homes, we also need to look at improving the pull through in social housing whereby people are revisited and helped into ownership or private rental accommodation if their circumstances have changed and they wish to move on.

The combination of not enough suitable accommodation and not enough afterthought for people's long-term housing has meant we have given us gridlock.

Shelter puts the human cost of that at 116,000 homeless children currently in temporary accommodation, and in March this year the Government put the number of households in temporary accommodation at around 90,000.

But official statistics only tell half the story.

Crisis has done a great job in highlighting the issue of hidden homeless - those people who don't even make it onto the local authority spreadsheet.

In an age where housing affordability is such an issue for young people, the line between 'sofa surfing' and 'rough sleeping' is getting thinner and thinner.

We cannot allow ourselves to get into the position where out of sight means out of mind.

As well as ensuring that we have 'the bricks and mortar' in place, we need to support people to turn their houses into homes - and I don't mean providing them with Swedish soft furnishings!

It's not enough to give people a roof over their heads, properties need to be clean, safe, furnished, somewhere that people feel they can belong.

People of all ages and situations need the right opportunities develop skills for independent living, especially young people, and those who've been homeless for a long time.

Alongside strategies for helping people into accommodation, we need to enhance people's employment prospects.

That means accessible, meaningful education and training, and available jobs. Jobs that are flexible enough to act as a bridge into the world of work.

The key to that is very often starting with what are termed 'soft skill sets' - enjoyable and recreational activities like art, cookery or practical skills - which condition the mind to make it receptive to learning and retaining vocational skills.

The Crisis Skylights centre does an excellent job in helping people develop skills, often starting with the core skill of learning itself.

The strength of an approach like that is it focuses on the individual person and it helps to addresses the psychological barriers that often exist.

And we mustn't estimate the mindset that often draws former homeless people back onto the streets.

Fear, isolation, sometimes just a simple lack of belonging can make it difficult to adjust to being in fixed accommodation.

I recall vividly going to the opening of a hostel in Basildon and sitting in a clean, bright room with a young man who told me that telling me that he still had this almost irresistible draw back on the streets - and he didn't think he would be able to settle at the hostel for long.

So it's not just about putting the practical trapping of accommodation in place, it is also about helping people move on.

That means restoring people's confidence, fostering their self-belief and helping them to break destructive cycles.

Tackling homelessness includes acknowledging that our job isn't done when someone has moved into a flat or house.

We have to be aware of the issues that can stop people successfully making that transition, and work together to prevent people from relapsing into homelessness.

People have been formerly homeless are just one group in society which we should be attuned to looking out for, and working to avoid a regression.

But there are so many other groups of people who I would term as 'at risk' of homelessness from an early stage.

For them there are factors in their life, often beyond their control, which make becoming homeless a crushing inevitability.

We need to get smarter about spotting those factors and putting mechanisms in place to deal with them.

In the last couple of years we have been holding seminars and engaging with people involved in homelessness to learn more about the problem.

What has emerged is a pattern of 'routes into homelessness'.

And so often the common denominator is the exit from an institutional existence.

Research suggests that a third of rough sleepers and a fifth of those in hostel or bed & breakfast accommodation were formerly members of the armed forces at one time or another.

So perhaps one step would be to look again at the system of exit interview for those leaving the armed forces and to improve the support framework for those adjusting back into civilian life.

Another at risk group are children leaving care - and I use the term 'children' consciously because when you meet young people who at the age of 16 suddenly have to fend for themselves it is painfully clear that we are very often talking about children rather than adults.

Ex prisoners are also very likely to find themselves forced into rough sleeping. I know that from first hand experience through the charity I am involved in. It still astonishes me how crude the penal system is.

If we are serious about imprisonment acting as a mechanism for reform then we need to look very seriously at how the system spits out people who have served their sentence.

Sending them out into the world, with no skills, no employment prospects, nowhere to live and an inadequate network of support is a recipe for homelessness or potentially re-offending.

People with mental health problems are also likely candidates for homelessness - the Government estimates that between a third and half of all rough sleepers have mental health problems.

The extent to which the mental health problems predate their rough-sleeping is unknown, but I think it is fair to assume that for many a deterioration in their mental health will have been accelerated by the physical and psychological trauma of rough sleeping.

Substance abuse, particularly but not exclusively drugs, is another common trigger for homelessness. We want to see more residential rehabilitation places for addicts - as David Cameron said in one of his first speeches as leader we need to build "a nation of the second chance".

Then finally we have those people whose homelife, or settled accommodation, is so torturous that rough sleeping actually becomes preferable.

I'm thinking now of victims of domestic abuse. People - men and women, young and old, for whom their home holds more fear than sleeping in a doorway.

And another uncomfortable truth is that doesn't just hold true for the home, there are hostels as well which despite their best efforts are fighting a losing battle against the type of crime and intimidation which deters rough sleepers from seeking help.

So what you can start to see is a network of routes into rough sleeping and homelessness. Routes which we need to start closing down.

One of the first things to do is get real joined up working between government departments.

At the moment 'homelessness' is a vast and unwieldy catch-all that rests with DCLG - but in reality it goes to the heart of so many other departments like Home Office, Defence, and Health.

There needs to be better coordination between these departments - genuine joined up thinking between the agencies so that they can be pro-active in closing the loopholes through which homeless people so often slip.

But Government, of any colour, can't do it all.

We need to be big enough to face that and therefore make it easier to draw in the third sector, where time and time again they demonstrate real skill in tackling social issues like homelessness.

And if we are to draw on the services of those third sector agencies we need to give them a level playing field to compete with the government bodies.

In practical terms this means giving the social sector the same opportunities to bid for public money as the public sector, and it means government giving social enterprises the freedom it needs to innovate and flourish.

In the same way we need to engage more with the faith organisations that already do a great job in tackling social problems.

Too often groups like the Salvation Army deliver a valuable service but against the odds - sometimes because they lack government funding, cooperation and even acknowledgement of the role they are playing.

That has to change - Government must enter into a genuine partnership with the third sector to deliver social improvement.

And in my view that strong working partnership between public sector and third sector should be the vehicle for rescuing those already homeless, and just as importantly those for whom homelessness is still alarmingly inevitable."

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