At about this time last year I wrote a blog about homelessness entitled ‘A good month for festivity but the worst time of year to be homeless.’ I have a special interest. I am a trustee of a Housing Society which provides a 154-bed hostel for vulnerable, homeless young people.

As Christmas approached, I wanted to air my concern and disbelief that, in Britain, in December 2017, quoting figures released by the charity Shelter, an estimated 307,000 people, equivalent to one in every 200, were officially recorded as homeless or living in inadequate homes. And then there were the hidden homeless, sofa surfing, bunking down in squats, seeking safety in out of the way places where they simply couldn’t be counted.

I cited the homelessness trap, created by the triple whammy of insufficient affordable housing, high rents and welfare cuts. I felt I was realistic in accepting that this problem could not be solved overnight and, frankly, not simply by the provision of a home. Homelessness is the mask for a range of social issues and personal challenges.

On balance, I was optimistic, however. There are some extraordinary individuals and organisations working tirelessly in this space. In London, for example, 18 voluntary sector bodies had recently formed the London Homeless Charities Group (LHCG), supported by the Mayor. This year, St Mungo’s is leading the LHCG’s fundraiser to help end rough sleeping in the capital.

By passing the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, the government had also demonstrated that homelessness was shooting up the political agenda. This legislation came into force in April 2018 and seems to have gained considerable cross-sectoral support and a growing consensus behind it.

Overall, I figured, the UK was on the case. The crisis of homelessness would not be allowed to grow uncontrollably in our country.

Or would it? Was my directionally positive outlook justified? A year on, let’s look at the facts.

In truth, the story is still not great. The charity Homeless Link published figures in January 2018 estimating that, on any one night, 4,751 people were sleeping rough and that this number, based on research conducted in autumn 2017, was up 15% on the equivalent period in 2016.

Alarmingly, another charity (Crisis), challenging this ‘official’ figure, has asserted that 12,300 people are sleeping rough on the streets while a further 12,000 spend the night in tents, cars, sheds, bins or night buses. That’s over 24,000 souls during this festive period.

An article in The Guardian on 8th October also highlighted the horrifying number of deaths among rough sleepers, caused by violence, drug overdoses, illnesses, suicide and murder. The piece cited work by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimating a death toll since October 2017 of 449, more than one per day. January was the deadliest month, apparently, with 33 deaths (Christmas spirit long gone), and the average age at death was 49 for men and 53 for women, i.e. life expectancies in sub-Saharan Africa territory.

Add to this November’s appalling CCTV images from Hull of a mindless, drunken thug jumping feet-first on a tent containing two rough sleepers in a shop doorway and we clearly still have, in the words of Shelter’s chief executive Polly Neate, “a national disgrace” on our hands.

And right now, surely, that’s what it will remain. Homelessness is a complex, long-term problem requiring focus, energy, tenacity and resources at a national, regional and local level. A roof over someone’s head is a good start but there needs to be an intelligent pathway to full recovery. As such, it is particularly important that our government pulls its weight.

But, as was underlined on BBC’s excellent Broadcasting House (BH) last Sunday, we have an executive with an emerging plan for tackling homelessness but without the capacity to execute it. Guess why? Sorry, B-word alert. To quote the BH participants, “the government is stuck in the quagmire of Brexit,” with the result that “the policy grid has been wiped clean.”

Moreover, we had better get used to this. Brexit will be all-encompassing for a while yet and, in my view, more widely, the bigger issues of our age will not be resolved by the unimpressive band of self-serving, short-termists whom we now find occupying positions of political power.

So, believing that the world can be influenced by the small acts of many, what can we all do about homelessness, accepting that, without proper funding, we cannot heal the wound?

Here are five quick thoughts:

  • Educate yourself – helping the homeless can start by getting under the skin of the issue and understanding how they get there in the first place
  • Communicate – don’t ignore homeless people. Speak to them, show them some respect. Their loss of dignity can be the harder to bear than anything
  • Agitate – if you see homeless people in your area or on your commute, look up the relevant phone numbers and alert your local agencies
  • Donate – giving money directly can be vexed due to the exploitation of homeless people by gangs. Buying a sandwich/coffee or donating to a recognised charity will help though
  • Participate – if the mood takes you, volunteer with an organisation/for an event that supports homeless people. Find out what is needed and how you can help

As with last year, I don’t have the answer and sometimes despair at the scale of the challenge. But, while our leaders appear to be otherwise engaged, if you care about homelessness and the human lives it can derail, please get involved.

Happy Christmas and thanks for reading my blogs this year.