Home in on wealth

The government, with its rough sleeping
targets and New Deal programmes, is in danger of skating over the
problem of homelessness, says Bob Holman, who advocates a new tax
on expensive homes

I am uneasy about the New Labour approach of
setting numerical targets. For instance, if social services
departments are pressed to place a percentage of children in care
for adoption, this may minimise efforts to return some to their
birth families. Child care policy should be about meeting the
differing needs of every child, not about using them as target

So I was dubious when the government’s rough
sleepers unit was set a precise figure for cutting numbers of rough
sleepers which it now claims to have achieved with a reduction to
532. No doubt, much has been achieved by the unit’s capable
director, Louise Casey. But strong criticisms have come from
voluntary agencies which accuse the unit of fixing numbers by
pushing sleepers off the streets into hostels for the night of the

Whether this accusation is true or not, three
points can hardly be contested. First, a count of 532 on one night
does not include those who sleep rough at other times. Second,
those in hostels might soon return to the streets. Third, some bed
and breakfasts, squats and other beds are a form of rough sleeping.
In short, rejoicing over the achievement of a target is not
sufficient because it does not deal with the housing needs of a
vulnerable group of human beings.

My experience on the outer estate of
Easterhouse, Glasgow, reinforces the above points. A young offender
left prison, refused to go to a hostel, slept rough and turned up
at my door. I arranged a temporary stay with relatives but he has
no permanent address, no job, no money. At 7am one morning, I found
a young man sleeping on our doorstep. A drug abuser, he had been
kicked out by his parents. He is not the first to sleep in our
close (the communal hallways and stairs of Scottish flats). At a
car park, a young beggar greeted me. A former member of our youth
club, he too was on drugs and sleeping with friends or in closes. I
wonder if the rough sleeper head count included the large council

It is not just ex-prisoners and drug users.
There is now a core of young people who are almost disengaged from
society. They could not cope with the New Deal. Their welfare
benefits are cut or non-existent. They may be dependent upon and in
conflict with their low income parents. Sometimes they doss on
friends’ sofas. In places such as Easterhouse, young, single people
once obtained tenancies from the council. With thousands of flats
now demolished, this option is rarely open. Often these young
people are not on the voters’ list and have no official standing. I
believe they should be numbered among the homeless.

What should be done? Pushing them into hostels
will not help unless it is what they want. A more holistic approach
is required which prepares them for careers, not grotty jobs, and
enables them to obtain their own accommodation. Employment should
be much more based on local projects where they feel comfortable
rather than with outside institutions.

The project with which I am associated took on
a young, unconfident, unemployed woman. Supported by people she
knew and having gained relevant experience, she obtained a place on
a course for nursery workers. Recently, I received a Christmas card
in which she says she has been for five years in the same nursery
and is now taking more advanced training. She has accommodation, a
job with some status, and a reasonable income. The trouble is that
a government which pours cash into New Deal programmes provides
little to those locally run projects which are best placed to help
disengaged young people.

But the focus should not just be on the
homeless. It should also be on the wealthy. In central London,
there are elites whose houses are worth up to a million pounds. The
enormous rise in their property value is due to the workings of
capitalist markets. But resources are finite and their housing
luxury means that less is available for those at the bottom. Sadly,
some of the occupants are those who, in their younger, radical days
used to attack capitalism and poverty. It may be very un-New
Labour, but it is time to re-state the class nature of society.
Some are homeless because others have too much. My proposal is that
a homelessness tax be applied to the property of the wealthy that
can be used to fund secure tenancies so that the homeless can have
their own homes.

Bob Holman is associated with a
locally run project in Easterhouse, Glasgow and is the author of
Champions for Children: The Lives of Modern Child Care
, Policy Press, 2001.

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