The private rental sector
Because of the lack of social housing most councils in the UK pass the homeless on to private landlords. Most councils have the ability to use the private rented sector to end their duty to a homeless person. The council has a duty to ensure that any private rented accommodation they place a homeless person in is fit for purpose and affordable. The housing officer is not obliged to inform the homeless candidate of this duty. If one does not know about this duty by the council it is most likely that the housing offered will be the first available, suitable and affordable or not. In fact, these two duties are often neglected and are open to wide interpretation by the housing officer in charge.
Affordability often means the person taking the rental accommodation is forced to live in real poverty, all the emphasis by the housing department being on paying the rent, council tax and all the outgoings. The tenancy has to be sustainable, which means the tenant can afford to meet all the expenses of the home for the duration of the tenancy. There may be little or nothing left over for food and subsistence but the housing officer will not care about that because the housing department is measured by providing accommodation not on whether or not the homeless person has an acceptable lifestyle. Fit for purpose can be very loosely defined as being a building that is watertight and in a reasonable state of repair. Basically you are being offered a roof over your head but the accommodation is likely to be an unfurnished empty shell with no kitchen white goods but there has to be a means of providing heating (often just a simple electric fire is regarded as being sufficient) and there has to be a toilet and a means of washing.
Many private landlords buy cheap property at auction, do some minor repairs only, and then put the property up for rental at the highest rate the local market can bear. Quite frankly the homeless person is being moved into a slum, which is an investment property for the private landlord and you are paying off the landlord's mortgage. The landlord can give you notice and within one month you can be out on the street again. There is no security of tenure for the tenant, although the current government promises to look at improving tenant rights, (don't hold your breath for it to happen).
As the homeless by definition do not have much money if any, being placed in an unfurnished empty shell of a building is quite a shock. To my knowledge, housing officers are likely to tell the person they can sleep on the floor or on an air bed and buy furniture and kitchen equipment from secondhand and charity shops. It escapes the council's attention that a homeless person often cannot afford to buy even from charity shops. It also does not matter what age the homeless person is, even a 70 year old with health problems will be placed in such accommodation and the council then sees it has done its duty to the homeless. For the elderly it can be a very daunting task setting up a home from scratch, especially one from which you can be moved out of at a month's notice. There are some charities who can help but this depends on the area in which you live and you must fall into some tightly defined categories before help is forthcoming and it will be limited.
The lack of social housing came about because Margaret Thatcher the Conservative Prime Minister in the 80's passed an Housing Act allowing council house tenants to buy their homes, thus creating the current lack of social housing. This situation was exacerbated by David Cameron’s government controversially extending the right to buy to housing association tenants.
Accepting an offer if you think the home is unsuitable
If you're homeless or in temporary accommodation it's best not to refuse an offer of a council home. If you think the local council has offered you housing that is unsuitable or unaffordable it might be better for you to accept the home you've been offered because it could be your only chance to get one. Refusing could also make your situation worse, for example if your local council reduces your points or removes you from their priority list. Even if you're offered another property later on it may be no better than the one you've refused. Get help from your nearest Citizens Advice if you're not sure whether to accept an offer if you think the home is unsuitable. Complain once you have accepted the tenancy and moved in, your case will be stronger.
Housing stock in the Private Housing Sector
The standard of private rented accommodation in the United Kingdom is generally of a very low standard. Many private landlords do not want tenants who are receiving housing benefits purely because benefits are paid in arrears and private landlords want payment in advance. There is also considerable social stigma in Britain against people receiving housing benefits. Private landlords who will accept tenant on benefits usually operate at the very bottom end of the housing market. These properties are usually bought at auction, are run down and in socially deprived areas and the landlords may do absolutely nothing to improve the properties because they cannot recoup any investment as the rental rate gives a very low profit margin. These landlords buy under the buy–to–let mortgage schemes that are favourable to the landlord and they usually aim to rent out the property at a monthly rental that gives them a profit of around 8% return on investment. These private landlords are not philanthropists, they are solely in the property market as an investment and they do not care at all about their tenants, all they want is the monthly rent to be paid regularly and on time. They usually will not repair or improve a property in any way and the tenant is left with bearing the expense of maintaining the landlord's property or living in a damp, cold slum.
A BBC Panorama investigation has uncovered the extent to which unethical landlords are taking advantage of nationwide housing shortages and the fact that local councils have little power to penalize them for shoddy accommodation. Rogue landlords are charging monthly rent of hundreds of pounds per resident; it’s estimated that around £3 billion per year is being handed over to landlords for substandard accommodation.
There is a general acknowledgement amongst private landlords that standards do not have to be high, the expression, 'It's good enough as a rental,' is quite common when assessing the condition of a property.
Are you better off sleeping rough?
My view is you could well be better off. My view may be interpreted as being radical, but it is based on experience of both sleeping rough for an extended period and having tried getting help from Hambleton District Council, an escapade that wasn't worth the mental strain and anguish.
Independent Newspaper: May Bulman Social Affairs Correspondent 14 August 2019: A homeless person dies every 19 hours in UK, figures show at least 235 people affected by homelessness have died over the last six months, ranging from the ages of 16 to 104 years old. Not all of them were sleeping rough some died in sheltered accommodation. There has been a surge in rough sleeping in England, with government figures showing the number of people sleeping on the streets has increased by 165 per cent in the past eight years.
There is no doubt that sleeping rough has dangers. The danger most homeless charities cite is health issues resulting from exposure to cold and damp, this combined with the difficulties of maintaining personal hygiene. These are very real dangers but it doesn't end there.
The greatest danger of sleeping rough is violence by members of the public, mainly from people who are drunk or on drugs, or just downright nasty, bigoted people, of which this country of ours excels in producing. There is the risk of aggression from other homeless people who may see you as trespassing on their territory.
The situation varies depending upon where you are located in the country but the police can be as much of a problem as the general public.
It is often the case that the police regard rough sleepers with suspicion and do not want them on their patch. Remember the police are controlled by the local authority, or at least are influenced by the local council leaders.
You should also be aware of the Vagrancy Act of 1824 which is still on the Statute Books. The Vagrancy Act states:
Persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds.
'Every person committing any of the offences herein-before mentioned, after having been convicted as an idle and disorderly person; …every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, [F5 not having any visible means of subsistence ] and not giving a good account of himself or herself…' '…it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such offender (being thereof convicted before him by the confession of such offender, or by the evidence on oath of one or more credible witness or witnesses,) to the house of correction for any time not exceeding three calendar months.'
Between 2017 and 2018 there were 1,127 arrests for vagrancy by police forces in England and Wales.
SO, to sleep rough you risk:
If you are a person who can live life simply and be prudent with money and if have any sort of small income you may be better off sleeping rough and saving your money rather than wasting it on temporary accommodation or putting it in the hands of unscrupulous private landlords. It's a way of saving up so you can move on in life.
However, you need a plan and you need to know what you are doing if you decide to go it alone and turn your back on the scant help offered by your local council.
Choosing your site
If you take the jump and decide to live rough it is important to make a reconnaissance of your area. There is very little land in the United Kingdom that is not either in private ownership or is State owned. There is a steady privatization of public space. Streets and open spaces are being defined as private land after redevelopment. This means you could be prosecuted for trespass for sleeping in certain streets or parks because they are in private ownership. In addition to the criminal measure referred to above, a range of other less formal measures may be used by businesses, security companies and local councils to deter rough sleeping, including:
A rapid recce of a town or village will quickly determine if these deterrents are in use by private firms and local planners. If they are in evidence it is a very clear indication that the local population, local council and local police are actively discouraging rough sleepers rather than helping them and are using these defensive measure to further marginalize and drive away the poor and homeless. You should try another location rather than run the gauntlet.
Monday 25 March 2019; A group of homeless people were kicked out of public tunnels next to the Houses of Parliament. One man claimed he was told by a police officer that an MP had complained about their presence.
Two of the men who had been sleeping in the tunnels to keep warm told The Independent Newspaper that Metropolitan Police officers ejecting them had cited section four of the Vagrancy Act 1824. 'The police told me to get up and leave.' One of them said, ‘We’re moving everyone from the tunnels so the MPs can get to work.'
Sleeping in view of the general public carries with it risk and reward. You certainly risk being targeted by the police and outraged locals who don't want you in their area. On the other hand, you have some protection from aggression and are less likely to be picked on by a member of the public who doesn't want others to see him or her kicking your head or setting light to you as punishment for being less fortunate than he or she is. There is a possibility that you may be contacted by a charity's outreach team who will try to help you (they can't force you off the street but may give you food and warm bedding.) You may also find companionship with others sleeping rough but be warned that a group sleeping rough is more likely to attract a public complaint and receive police action than a single rough sleeper.
Be aware that the police actively encourage members of the public to report the whereabouts of people sleeping rough so they can get rid of them. (The public are often led to believe they are doing a good thing and helping but they have no idea that the police just want rough sleepers off their patch, there is no compassion in this scenario.) Do not stay in one location for more than a day or so. It is best to have several locations that you can move between. If one area becomes unattractive you always have some options to turn to and it is best to move right out of one area to another even if you plan to return at a later date.
Take careful note of CCTV, avoid sleeping near jewellers shops, banks, bus or rail stations etc., as these are all monitored 24/7.
Sleeping in a vehicle
How you behave as a rough sleeper also is defined by your circumstances. If you are sleeping in a car it is best to find a public car park that is not policed at night. Always read the notices at the entrance to the car park and heed any warning about not being allowed to overnight, find somewhere else. If you have to pay a small overnight fee, always do that if you can to stay within the law, and move off well before the morning time limit to avoid being noticed by traffic wardens who may bring you to the attention of the police or local council.
Technically, it is not illegal to sleep in a car because when the Vagrancy Act of 1824 was passed through parliament there were no cars and a car cannot be classified as a cart or wagon because a cart or wagon has to pulled by horses or by hand and a modern motor car has its own means of propulsion and thereby is not defined in the Vagrancy Act. So, if you are not violating any road traffic conditions no policeman can insist you move on or arrest you for sleeping in a car, lorry or van under the Vagrancy Act. However under the Vagrancy Act the police can ask you to give a good account of yourself, for this reason have your plausible cover story ready (on holiday, got tired and stopped for a rest, seeking work and accommodation in the area, etc. Know where you came from and where you are headed. Do not lie to a police officer as this is an offence.) Although you are not committing an offence by sleeping rough in a vehicle you still should keep below the radar and try not to draw too much attention to yourself. This is a standard policy for all sleeping rough however you set about it.
If there are no suitable car parks, find a quiet side road out of view of house windows and move off early morning before the residents are active. Do not repeatedly return to the same place as this will quickly be noticed. It is better not to sleep in areas that advertise Neighbourhood Watch schemes, if you do and are challenged by residents, be aware that if it is not a private street or lane they cannot object to your presence but it will cause aggravation and they may call the police who will check you out and treat you with suspicion. Keep low in a car so you are not obvious through the windows; if you can, swap your car for a light van, you are going to be much safer sleeping in the back if no one knows you are inside it. It is obvious I guess, but make sure all your doors and windows are secured whatever the outside temperature. There have been numerous reports of members of the public urinating through car windows of people sleeping rough even if they have children with them. There is no end to generosity of the milk of human kindness.
Sleeping rough successfully in a car is a clandestine existence but considerably easier than being on foot and using public transport. As with all rough sleepers do not outstay your welcome in any one particular area, especially in a rural one where everyone knows everybody else's business very quickly. Make sure you have a good cover story if challenged by the public or the police.
On foot or using public transport.
If you are on foot as a rough sleeper you are obviously more noticeable because you have to carry everything you own with you at all times. Try to blend in by looking as normal as possible, for example, do not use a rucksack obviously kitted out for "camping" in an urban area use a carrier that doesn't look out of place like a sports bag or similar to carry a tent, sleeping bag and cooking gear. In a rural area things are easier in some ways because you can look like a walker and camper.
If you can afford it use buses to travel long journeys especially inter city night buses where you can get a safe night's sleep in relative comfort of a bus seat. Most of these buses have a loo and a wash basin. If you have a pensioners bus pass these are not valid on national express buses but you can find long bus journeys on regular routes where you can get a couple of hours sleep in safety. Keep hopping buses as long as you can, it works but takes a bit of planning.
Finding a safe and sheltered place to sleep is always going to be a challenge if you are on foot. There are homeless out there who are not nice characters and you run the risk of being robbed or beaten up if you try to befriend them and move in on what they regard as their "patch." If someone is too kind or friendly be wary as they are probably weighing up their chances of robbing you. Be equally wary of any member of the public who offers to help you, be sure of their motives before trusting them. A good rule is to stay in the proximity of others but far enough away from them to allow you to beat a hasty retreat if necessary. Make sure you are never trapped, for example, in a dead end alleyway or in an underpass which can be blocked off at both ends.
When you are living rough on the streets think like a soldier using escape and evasion tactics. Sometimes it is prudent to hide in amongst others, like buying a coffee and sleeping in an all night McDonald's or similar place. Do not sleep in bus stations, rail stations or airport lounges as these are all constantly monitored by CCTV and you will be thrown out or arrested. It is increasingly difficult to find a roof over your head, even churches are locked up at night but you may be lucky enough to find a rural church that is open. "Knock and the door shall be opened onto you" doesn't apply to modern day Christianity, God currently only operates on a Sunday between 11am–12am and 4–5pm, but the local vicar, pastor or priest may allow you to spend a night sleeping on the church floor – no reason not to ask for help, but don't be too hopeful.
Hospitals are also useful places for the occasional night's sleep. Walk around as if you know what you are doing and seek out family rooms or rest areas. Just settle down and sleep in a chair, making sure that your belongings are not easily stolen as this also happens in hospitals as sneak thieves target hospitals regarding the sick as easy pickings. Hospitals have maps of the building in most corridors so you can easily find where family rooms are and it is worth looking if there is a 24 hr. chapel because this will rarely be used – just get out of it before 7 am is a good rule and as tempting as it may be, don't sleep on the floor, sleep on a chair so you will be less noticeable if anyone enters the chapel as they will think you are praying or grieving and are likely to leave you alone. In some hospitals family rooms also have a kettle and tea making facilities but do not over extend your stay as the nurses will eventually notice you, so have a good cover story ready if challenged, and if you are challenged make a discreet exit. Do not tell them you are homeless as this will not be met with sympathy it will be met with ignominious eviction from the hospital premises. Remember that hospitals also have CCTV in most corridors and you should sort out where you are going at evening visiting time so you are less likely to be singled out for attention by hospital security. You are more likely to get away with sleeping in a big regional hospital that in a small cottage hospital.
The Express and Star ran an article about homeless people pictured sleeping in Wolverhampton Library (Dec 17, 2018). 'A public library is for everyone regardless of their position in society,' a council spokesman said. Public libraries have long provided shelter for the homeless although some councils are attempting to ban the use of libraries as places of shelter for the homeless in an attempt to drive them off the streets using the council logic that if you provide any comfort for rough sleepers you are in fact encouraging them and not driving them back into gainful employment. Some libraries have the policy of waking up sleepers and telling them the library is not a de–facto day shelter. The homeless traditionally use libraries, especially in the winter, to keep warm and dry and to charge cell phones and laptops, but even this practice is being stopped in some public buildings with the installation of locked electrical outlets. Anything to make life for homeless people harder and more unpleasant. If you are tired and need shelter, need to recharge your phone and buy a cheap cup of coffee your local library is worth investigating. You can also read newspapers, magazines and books there!
You may have to get creative to find shelter because everything is designed in modern society to marginalize you, defensive architecture and the like. Try sleeping in the daytime when you are less vulnerable, during the daytime there is significantly less risk of being attacked or arrested, so try sleeping in the local parks or on the beach or anywhere you can find that gives shelter from the elements.
Read Part Four Next Month: