Homelessness minister reveals she ‘doesn’t know’ why rough sleeper numbers are increasing

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The UK’s new homelessness minister, Heather Wheeler, has said she does not know why the number of rough sleepers has increased so significantly in recent years, adding that she did not accept the suggestion that welfare reforms and council cuts had contributed to the rise

Heather Wheeler MP said she would resign if she fails to meet the Conservative manifesto commitment to halve rough sleeping by 2022 toward total eradication by 2027.

On a visit to Turning Point Scotland’s Housing First project, Wheeler said she remained “totally confident” she would not have to act on her pledge to resign should she fail to meet the Conservative manifesto. “We’re going to move heaven and earth to get that done,” she promised.

The government has been strongly criticised by campaign groups for failing to recognise the effect of welfare ‘reform’ such as the housing benefit freeze, the household benefit cap and the universal credit rollout on homelessness.

Wheeler was asked on 15 March about the reasons for the rise in rough sleeping, which has increased in England for seven consecutive years; official figures show 4,751 people slept outside overnight in 2017. She said: “In truth, I don’t know. That’s one of the interesting things for me to find out over the last eight weeks that I’ve been doing the job. We’ve looked at the different cohorts, and in London the number of veterans who are rough sleepers is down to about 2%.”

Commending the “amazing job” done by armed forces charities, she went on to describe a second “classic” reason for rough sleeping: coming out of prison with no support. “It’s very difficult. We also have a real problem in London with people coming over [mainly from Europe] for jobs, sofa surfing with friends, and then the job changes and they have a problem.”

Wheeler was visiting Turning Point Scotland’s Housing First project, part of an internationally successful model that places the most entrenched rough sleepers in permanent housing before they deal with addiction, mental illness or other challenges. It works on the notion that people make the most progress when in a stable home, rather than a hostel or shared temporary accommodation.

In November, the Conservative government pledged £28m for similar pilots in the West Midlands, Manchester and Liverpool. A government-funded study in Liverpool concluded that Housing First could save £4m compared with current homelessness services in the area.

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