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article imageHigh rents and austerity swell Britain's homeless

By Manuel AUSLOOS (AFP)     Jan 31, 2019 in World

Homelessness in London has gone up by 300 percent over an eight-year period, according to government data published on Thursday that revealed a full-blown crisis fuelled by housing shortages and spiralling rents.

Almost 1,300 people sleep every night in the streets of the capital -- the epicentre of a growing problem that is finally pushing local and national authorities to action as temperatures plunge in the city.

Homeless deaths are frequent -- one in late December at Westminster Underground station captured national headlines because it was in the shadow of parliament.

"The other day a guy died of hypothermia over there," said Eric Green, a 56-year-old rough sleeper who begs every day in front of London's Trafalgar Square, rain, shine or snow.

Wrapped in an old coat with a tattered hat over his ears, Green has been living rough for two and a half years -- ever since he lost his job as a carpenter and then his flat.

Some 320,000 people now live on the street or in emergency accommodation nationwide, according to the charity Shelter.

Most were driven out of their homes by unaffordable rent, rather than by a life event, said the charity.

"If you are on a very low income and you need welfare support to be able to pay your rent. When the rent goes up, it becomes very difficult," Jon Sparkes, CEO at fellow charity Crisis, told AFP.

- 'They are not doing enough' -

The charities blame the government's social and housing policy for exacerbating the problem.

"We choose whether we invest in social homes, we choose whether we invest in the welfare system to support people out of homelessness," said Sparkes.

Overseeing an austerity programme implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the government has cut tens of billions of pounds from social programmes.

Over the same period, London's population has swelled by more than one million people from 7.8 million to 8.8 million, fuelled by high birth rates and international migration.

Almost 1 300 people sleep every night in the streets of London
Almost 1,300 people sleep every night in the streets of London
NIKLAS HALLE'N, AFP/File

These trends are reflected in the official statistics released on Thursday, which showed an annual rise of 38 percent in the number of non-UK EU nationals sleeping rough on London's streets.

While the population has risen, public investment in social housing has fallen sharply, creating a perfect storm for those on low incomes.

The government financed 36,700 social housing units in England for the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

Seven years later, that figure fell to just 6,463.

London's mayor Sadiq Khan made housing a focus of his 2016 campaign, committing to build 116,000 social housing units by 2022.

Over 12,000 projects funded by the city council broke ground last year, an eight-year-high, according to the mayor's deputy housing minister, James Murray.

Khan has also launched a homelessness action plan and is calling for more funding from central government.

"Without... funding a proper service to keep people off the streets, we won't be truly able to end homelessness," added Murray.

The government has committed to eradicating homelessness by 2027, making £100 million (€115 million) available.

It has also promised £2 billion over 10 years for the construction of social housing, but the charities called for more.

"They will have to do an awful lot more around prevention, welfare policy and social housing building, if they are going to achieve those ends," said Sparkes.

"We would like them to achieve those ends, but they are not doing enough yet."

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