Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st June 1978.

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Photo of Mr Charles Irving Mr Charles Irving , Cheltenham 12:00 am, 21st June 1978

I want to concentrate on the appalling situation of the single homeless person. The matter has been referred to hardly at all during the debate. The agencies dealing with this problem believe that it is now greater than at any time since the First World War. A decade or so ago, a high proportion of the single homeless were homeless men, many of whom passed through a revolving door involving prison, psychiatric hospitals, Salvation Army hostels, night shelters, sleeping rough and then back to prison, for the cycle to begin again.

Today, this hard core of homeless men has been joined by many people who have become homeless for many other reasons, including reasons connected with the present economic situation. With 1½ million unemployed, it is inevitable that some of these will have lost their accommodation through difficulties in keeping up with the rent. Moreover, the tendency of many single people in a time of high unemployment is to move around in search of work, using hostels or cheap lodging-house rooms. A number of these men and women have joined the ranks of the single homeless and more seem likely to do so in the future.

The position has been worsened over the past 10 years by the very rapid decrease in the amount of cheap single-person accommodation available. Before the Second World War, there were over 300 reception centres throughout the country where a homeless person could obtain a bed for the night. Today, there are 21 reception centres, and in any event many single homeless people avoid using them because of the nature of the accommodation.

Cheap commercial lodging-house accommodation has been reduced tremendously. City centre redevelopment schemes and the building of inner city ring roads have led to the knocking down of many dwellings where landladies would take in a number of men for a few shillings a night. The Rowton Houses, which used to provide cheap, clean rooms for thousands of single people, have been upgraded into hotels to met the demands of the tourist industry. In London alone, this has led to the disappearance of about 2,000 cheap rooms.

As a result, a great deal has been left to voluntary organisations. I cannot mention them without referring to the Salvation Army, which provides about 6,000 beds nationally, and the Church Army, which provides another 2,000. But many homeless people try to avoid using such provision, being understandably reluctant to spend the night in a vast dormitory in the company of coughing, spluttering, alcoholic older men.

Apart from the Salvation Army and the Church Army, most help by voluntary organisations is of a specialist nature, aimed at specific sections of the homeless population. For example, I am pleased to be associated, though the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders and the Stonham Housing Association, with the aftercare hostel movement for ex-offenders. I would also like to commend the excellent work of the Lifeline organisation, in the provision of accommodation for women and girls who are pregnant and in difficulties.

The problem of homeless young people remains every bit as serious today as it was in 1975, at the time of Yorkshire Television's brilliant documentary "Johnny go home". Teenagers leaving school have faced increased employment problems and many have left home for the big cities. For instance, in one year, Centrepoint, an agency providing temporary accommodation in the centre of London, gave shelter to nearly 6,000 youngsters and even then had to turn away over 2,000. More young people are sleeping rough, and many later join squats as the only form of accommodation they can find which they can afford, which results in physical and moral dangers.

There has also been a sharp increase in the proportion of girls in this group. The agencies working with homeless girls find that most of them have run away from home or, alternatively, have left home to find work or accommodation and have failed to find either. Runaway girls often say that they have been thrown out by their parents, but on investigation it often turns out that reasons such as pregnancy, family disruption, a new stepfather or stepmother with whom the young person does not get on, or a resistance to discipline by parents have led to the young person running away from home rather than being thrown out.

In 1976, the DHSS established an interdepartmental working party, which reported in July 1976. Its recommendations included an increased provision of hostel and other accommodation for homeless young people; local co-ordination of services to achieve concerted action for the homeless; the establishment of information services and youth advisory centres, and an adjustment of public expenditure priorities within existing resources to accommodate the requirements. Those recommendations are, if anything, even more urgent today than they were two years ago, and I should like to see very much speedier progress with regard to the recommendations of that interdepartmental working party.

Several hon. Members referred to local authorities. Few local authorities maintain waiting lists for single people and sources of information on the single homeless are, therefore, varied and fragmented. Such information, however, suggests that the scale of the single homeless is far greater than is generally acknowledged, especially for those estranged from their families and at risk in one form or another. For example, a spot check earlier in the year in a youth club in Slough revealed that of the 70 youngsters present, 23 had nowhere to sleep that night. The period of homelessness varied between three weeks and five years. This is really an appalling situation.

Housing associations are particularly well suited to provide hostels and similar accommodation and, indeed, social support along with the accommodation, yet the Housing Corporation has earmarked only 5 per cent. of its total budget for this type of housing for 1978–79. I very much hope that it will reconsider the serious position that exists and substantially increase that amount for 1979–80. Local authorities should also be persuaded to contribute in this area, through their housing investment programmes. Single people have just as much right to a roof over their heads as have a family.

Finally, I draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that sheltered housing schemes under warden control, and residential homes for the elderly are, as he will know, bursting at the seams, with residents becoming increasingly frail and needy and requiring more care and attention. Unless a way can be found to finance additional care, local authorities will begin to waver at providing this invaluable type of accommodation.

In view of the national shortage of geriatric beds, I should like to feel that the Minister will ensure that close discussions are held with the parties concerned in order to develop such schemes, because I believe that the sheltered housing schemes, which could provide additional care and aid for the residents, are probably one of the most humane and dignified ways in which we can accommodate elderly people.