Looking into a High Street doorway this week, I saw two people still asleep, wrapped in each other’s arms. It was early morning, and they could not have looked happier, lost in their dreams — a man and a woman in their 30s or 40s, finding some repose despite being homeless.
But how do people like these end up there? I would not have been surprised to see them teaching in a school or running a cafe. Many people assume that the road to this kind of life disaster comes through drugs, drink, prison or some other kind of personal failing or crime. In fact, the most common cause in Canterbury over recent years has been relationship breakdown, according to our local homelessness charity Catching Lives.
Typically, a couple would split up and the one who moved out would then struggle to find an affordable flat. More recently, younger people have found themselves homeless by falling out with their parents, starting to sofa-surfing with friends and then overstaying their welcome. About 70 per cent of homeless people used to be in this category.
But none of these reasons explains the loving couple I saw. As I walked away from them I remembered what Terry Gore, general manager of Catching Lives told a Canterbury Society discussion last month. No-fault evictions from short-term tenancies have overtaken relationship breakdown as the main cause in the Canterbury district. The rent goes up and up — and eventually the tenant cannot afford to pay it. About 19 per cent of our population lives in privately rented homes, according to Canterbury City Council’s ‘Housing and Homelessness Prevention Strategy’. This is substantially higher than the 16.3 per cent UK average (according to the latest, albeit outdated, 2011 Census stats). But it is clear, as Terry Gore says, that we have not built enough houses and flats. This lack of political action is now feeding into a heavy social cost. Couples like this one pay the price by ending up on the street.
Being middle class used to protect most people from this kind of personal calamity. No longer. Homes take a while to build, and there are few plans to construct the small starter homes which the next generations. And you do not have to be a mathematician to see the financial stress that private tenants are under because of the shortage of homes. Prices go up, as we all know, when demand continues to outpace supply. For instance, two years ago, a two-bedroom flat in Canterbury was priced at an average monthly rental of £845, according to a survey by the GMB union. Nowadays, the figure is nearly 17 per cent higher — that is £142 more, taking the total to £987. Meanwhile, earnings growth has been far lower. The latest stats show a 3.5 per cent growth rate for 2018, and that was a relatively good year in this regard.
The current government has put a plan in place to “eliminate” homelessness by 2027, under the Homelessness Reduction Act. But the chances of that now seem minute — unless we start building decent homes now. In the short-term, we are likely to see the problem worsen. Catching Lives has been able to fund four full-time outreach workers thanks to a three-year government grant. But that money ends in March, and no plans have been announced to replace it. Last year the winter shelter ran for six months, thanks also to the government funds. This year, the plan has been scaled back as the money runs out, and it will run for just four months from December to March.
Looking to the future, I believe that the outcry will become so loud that voters will elect politicians who are committed to build decent homes and the infrastructure to serve them. In the meantime, I can only hope that the rough-sleeping couple I saw manage to use their ingenuity to find some way off the road.