I am sure we can agree that homelessness is a terrible scourge and that we would want to live in a town where there was no homelessness at all. I set fighting for better provision for homeless people as one of my top priorities as MP for Ipswich and I have already made moves to try to get it addressed more effectively.
Let me first say that there are different degrees of homelessness. There are quite a few people in Ipswich who do not have a home of their own and who have to find friends who will allow them to sleep at their homes for a few nights. This is degrading and disruptive and we should never forget that these people need homes of their own.
Then there are people who do have accommodation but which is wholly unsuitable or unhealthy. Families in “Bed and Breakfast” accommodation, or people living in cramped and unsanitary private-sector properties, ought to be able to find homes which enable them to lead a normal and healthy life, and although they are not actually homeless their needs must not be forgotten.
And then there are of course the people who sleep on the streets. There are a very small number of these in Ipswich I am glad to say, but I do agree with you that one is too many. I have been trying to work out exactly why these people are sleeping on the streets, and I do not have all the answers yet. It is certainly true that there are some vacant hostel beds in Ipswich most nights, and particularly at Christmas time when various temporary night-shelters are set up. I do not believe that these night-shelters meet the needs of every homeless person, but we do need to decide what we are prepared to provide in order to ensure that nobody is sleeping on the streets. Clearly we cannot allow a publicly-provided hostel to be a place where people sell drugs or alcohol to each other, but are we willing to allow a publicly-provided hostel to be a place where people feel able to take their own drugs or alcohol? This is not an easy question to answer.
I don’t agree with you that the Council or any voluntary sector agency in Ipswich is deliberately trying to make people homeless. I don’t necessarily agree with every emphasis of their approach. I don’t agree with the category “Intentionally Homeless” and am glad it is going to be discontinued, but we do need to acknowledge that some people are very difficult to help – they may be violent and pose a physical risk to other residents, or they may own dangerous dogs that they are unwilling to part with, or they may simply refuse to talk to anyone in authority, or, as in one case I heard about, they may have serious mental health problems which make them scared to go indoors. I do think we need a range of provision which is able to help all of these “difficult to help” people, but we won’t be able to help them if we don’t acknowledge that they are difficult to help.
And I certainly don’t agree with you if you believe that the Council should not take legal action against non-payers of rent under any circumstances. That would be a recipe for telling people that they didn’t need to pay their rent. I don’t think any council tenants in Ipswich have actually been thrown out onto the streets without any alternative home to go to, although I am sure that several people have lost their secure tenancies through non-payment of rent or persistent anti-social behaviour. This is as it should be – nobody would be willing to live as a law-abiding rent-paying council tenant next door to someone who was living there for free and making as much of a nuisance as they felt like, without the council taking any action against them.
What we do desperately need in Ipswich is more council homes. Ipswich Borough Council is very keen to build them, but the present government has made it as difficult as they can, forcing the Council to continue to sell off their existing council houses at far less than they are worth, refusing to allow the Council to borrow money to build more, and even stepping in to prevent the building of 94 council houses which were all set to be built in Ravenswood. With more council houses there would be more young families able to have a home of their own, and we would also reduce the pressure of demand on the private rented sector so that the rents in the private sector would go down.
Alongside the additional permanent homes, I do believe that we need additional hostel accommodation as temporary places for rough sleepers, and I will continue to push for that. But I do not think anyone has a deliberate policy of trying to stop rough sleepers finding accommodation, I just think there is a difference of opinion about the best way to achieve that.