January 10, 2020 | 8 minutes read

Austerity, housing and homelessness in Britain today

Revolutionary socialism is the only alternative to the current neoliberal system and the only one that can provide answers to the current questions of poverty. The only option is to build a revolutionary movement so that we may abolish the profit motive in housing altogether.

Austerity, housing and homelessness in Britain today

Since coming to power in the coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, the Conservative Party has imposed a ruthless programme of austerity; slashing community services and welfare in the interests of increasing capitalist profits with no regard for the working class. One of the consequences of these attacks on workers is a massive increase in people living on Britain's streets or otherwise having no permanent residence. Forcing people out of their homes can begin a cycle of poverty, making it harder to get a job, claim benefits or use government services and can cause a deterioration of both physical and mental health.

The term "homeless" is used to describe a variety of living situations. Most obviously it covers the rough sleepers, who have no safe living space to go to. This is what is usually pictured when talking about homelessness, as rough sleepers are a common sight in every town and city. The term can also describe those without permanent accommodation, such as those put up in hotels and hostels. It also covers those who aren't known as homeless to the government, but are sleeping on the floors and couches of friends and family, in their car or elsewhere. This group is often labelled ‘the invisible homeless’ since they are often overlooked in official statistics.

Approximately 0.5% of the British population, or 320,000 people are currently homeless. This includes approximately 4,000 to 5,000 who sleep rough on the street every night. The situation is a continual affront to human decency and has only gotten worse in recent years, with the number of rough sleepers increasing by 165% since 2010. Tory austerity measures such as cuts to the welfare system and other support networks for the country's most vulnerable groups have played a decisive role in increasing the number of homeless people, while failing to support those already without a permanent residence.

The lack of government action in response to this crisis has not only increased the number of homeless people, including rough sleepers, but has had deadly consequences for many. Between 2013 and 2018, we have seen a 51% increase in homeless deaths in England and Wales annually, with 726 deaths in 2018 alone. The life expectancy of a homeless person is just 47 years old, compared to the national average of 77, according to a 2011 NHS report.

Who are most likely to be homeless?

While homelessness almost exclusively only affects the working class, certain demographics within this class are more affected than others. LGBT people, those with mental health issues or disabilities, those who struggle with drug addiction, ex-convicts, immigrants, ex-soldiers, BAME people and victims of domestic violence are all especially affected by homelessness.

Homelessness characterises not only those who are without a home at all, but also those who specifically lack a safe home environment. This is an especially pressing issue for LGBT+ teenagers and young adults who may lack a safe living situation, often due to abusive anti-LGBT family members who may force them to leave, or be otherwise threatening or violent towards them. 24% of young homeless people identify as LGBT+, making them about fives times overrepresented in the homeless population.  With more restrictions and lower payments on benefits for young people under 25, those who cannot rely on their family for support are increasingly vulnerable to homelessness.

Victims of domestic abuse can also find themselves suddenly without a safe home environment. Almost a third of homeless women identified domestic violence as a contributing factor to their homelessness, while two women are killed each week by a partner or ex-partner in England. 61% of homeless women, and 16% of homeless men have also been victims of domestic violence in the past. Without a proper support network in place for victims of domestic violence, many are forced to choose between becoming homeless or remaining in a dangerous environment with their abuser. The threat of homelessness still stands as one of the major barriers to people leaving abusive relationships.

Lack of government support for those with disabilities or mental illnesses are also major factors in homelessness. 30%-35% of homeless people have mental health issues and they are often on the streets longer than those without them. Homelessness can also cause deterioration of mental health and exacerbate mental illnesses. Disabled people often face an incredible challenge in trying to be accepted for the benefits they need, which was explored in detail in a previous Red Fightback article. This is one of the reasons why there has been a considerable rise in homelessness amongst the disabled population and amongst people with mental illnesses over the last few years.

The role austerity plays in this crisis

The British capitalist state has implemented cuts to life-saving services with no regard to the real suffering caused. Both Tory controlled and Labour controlled councils have failed to stand up to this ideological attack on working people, with councils having cut spending on various local services by over 20% in the last ten years. Despite their performative opposition to cuts, Labour-led councils have been just as complicit in the hardship brought on by implementing them, which disproportionately punish already deprived working-class urban areas. At the same time we saw corporation tax drop from 28% in 2010 to 19% in 2017, laying bare that this government’s policies exist to benefit the capitalist class alone. Clearly this government is happy to help out the rich but will sit back and sadistically watch everyone else suffer.

The government's reshuffle of the welfare system, Universal Credit, was rolled out in 2013. This system, which combined six existing benefits into a single monthly payment, has faced a wide range of criticism from charities, advocacy groups, government committees and from within parliament itself. In 2018, the Parliament Public Accounts Committee released a report that concluded the system was failing those it was supposed to be helping and accused the Department of Work and Pensions, who oversee Universal Credit, of having a "culture of indifference" and of being "disturbingly adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support". Universal Credit takes at least five weeks to reach the applicant, which can leave them in dangerous rent arrears or unable to afford life-saving medicine, food, or other essential supplies. While there have been paltry attempts to fix the most obvious flaws in the system, the fact remains that the system is failing people and is still playing a leading role in the increase in homelessness. This must be seen in its connection with the violent, ableist system of capability assessments that force working-class people to repeatedly prove and justify their disabilities in order to receive the funds they need to survive.

A variety of cuts have also had a direct effect on the rising number of homeless people. In 2015, we saw the government announce cuts to Housing Benefit, decreasing payments to private renters by an average of £570 per year. This was a direct attack on those working low income jobs and those who are unable to work. Since 2010, we have also seen a vast drop in places available in government-funded homeless shelters as well. Cuts totalling approximately £1bn to homeless services nationally have meant there are 9,000 less places available, despite the vastly increased demand over that time period.

These are just a selection of the many cuts being made in this fashion. Other cuts just like these have all contributed to the rise of homelessness and the rise in poverty amongst the people of Britain. There can be no doubt that these are policies that amount to class warfare, justified through neoliberal ideology and designed to push a neoliberal agenda that cuts and privatises vital services with no consideration for the detrimental effect this will have on the people who rely on them – all in order to keep profits flowing for the ruling class in the face of imminent crisis.

Capitalism and access to housing

Capitalism has proved over and over that it cannot and will not solve the homelessness and housing crisis. Homes under the capitalist system are a commodity, i.e. they are only produced for their value in exchange: being sold or rented out. They are not produced based upon the social needs of the masses. A lack of affordable homes is putting increasing pressure on working families and allowing landlords to drive up the rent. Government "right to buy" schemes have also meant that houses originally built by the state as housing for the poorest end up getting bought up by opportunistic landlords. It is clear that capitalism is only serving the profit of the bourgeoisie. It does not serve the needs of the people.

In Britain, there is currently a surplus of 600,000 houses, in contrast to the 320,000 homeless people. If they were so inclined, the government could guarantee a house to all homeless people instantly. The issue is clearly not a lack of homes, but rather a lack of affordable and accessible housing for working class people. Of course we can be certain that housing will never be guaranteed under the current economic and political system. The government and parliament as a whole functions only as a tool of capitalist class rule and fundamentally protects their seemingly sacred right to private property. Even a social-democratic Labour party government would not make this happen.

In the rare instances in the 20th century that the capitalist state has taken property, often under nationalisation policies in the post war period, they have almost always guaranteed compensation for the property (also shares etc.) taken. This allows the capitalists whose properties were nationalised to simply continue their exploitative practises in another area or industry, not properly solving any of the issues of capitalism. It would be the same with any attempt to redistribute housing under the capitalist system. We have also seen in the past that even the most “left wing” of the old Labour governments never had the means or inclination to seize property to end homelessness. Despite the Labour Party conference mentioning the barest attempt at such a policy in 2018 and Corbyn mentioning it in response to the Grenfell disaster, there was no reference to it in the 2019 Labour election manifesto, apparently being replaced with a levy on second homes.

Socialism and access to housing

Revolutionary socialism is the only alternative to the current neoliberal system and the only one that can provide answers to the current questions of poverty; not just working within the system, but abolishing the current state of things and replacing it with one that can benefit all. Housing must be distributed based upon the needs of the people, rather than the financial interests of the capitalists. Mental health services, support for drug users, properly funded and accessible welfare and support for domestic abuse victims all must play a role in destroying homelessness and a planned economy can allow the housing needs of future generations to be met.

There are many examples of the progressive socialist attitude towards housing. In 1917, one of the first decisions made by the Soviets after the October Revolution was the Decree on Land. This decree instantly abolished private property without compensation. Specifically, the right to use small properties and farms were maintained by current occupants, but the large landed estates were seized and often converted into social housing, or otherwise used for the common good of the local peoples.

To end the homelessness found across the Soviet Union in the wake of the civil war, a permanent residence was guaranteed to all citizens. They could not be forcibly evicted or denied this right to shelter. By the early 1930s the USSR had taken major steps to eliminate homelessness.

Another example is that during the 70s and 80s, East Germany set about attempting to put an end to the housing shortage that had plagued Germany throughout the 20th century. Over this period, more than 100,000 houses were built annually. This housing would only cost residents 4-5% of their monthly income, which is a striking comparison to modern European cities – where more than a third of paychecks going on rent is increasingly becoming the norm.

It is not enough for a capitalist government to declare it will eventually get rid of homelessness. The threat of homelessness will exist as long as private property exists. In fact, capitalism cannot exist without the threat of homelessness - it is one of the main threats that keep the working class competing with each other, and is also used as a threat to keep us in line.

Any gains made for the working class under this system cannot be permanent as capitalism will always be riddled by crisis and will always demand expansion into new markets. The only option is to build a revolutionary movement so that we may abolish the profit motive in housing altogether. Only then can we give proper funding to social services, guarantee housing for all and ensure we build enough homes for future generations.

Housing is a human right!

Abolish homelessness!

Abolish capitalism!