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‘Tents and shipping containers won’t solve our homelessness crisis. Here’s what will’

Former council lead for housing, Paul Smith shares his take on what Bristol needs to do about homelessness.

Solutions in Bristol

Photo: Arvind Howarth

If there was one claim that used to make my heart sink when I was cabinet member for housing, it was someone asking to meet me because they had the solution to homelessness. I could almost predict that they would be about to pitch the idea of either making a large tract of council land available for some sort of homelessness village of tiny houses or shipping containers, or they wanted to fill the streets with plastic homes which looked like coffins (even if they have solar panel phone chargers) or roll out tents to people on the streets.

One of the first things to mention is that when these well-meaning people said ‘homelessness’ they meant ‘rough sleeping’, as over 90% of homelessness is invisible, with many families being housed by the council in ‘temporary’ (often not temporary enough) housing, homelessness hostels of one kind or another or moving around friends ‘sofa surfing’. The homelessness most people worry about is the street homelessness which is directly in their face. Often the local media gave more focus to the 100 people sleeping on the streets of Bristol than the 1,000 children living in temporary accommodation.

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Unfortunately, we have become a society where the services founded in a context economic dysfunction, such as food banks, become a source of national pride rather than a symbol of national disgrace. I understand that people want to deal with the immediate crises faced by people, but without seeking the long-term solutions to the problems, it’s rather like someone giving you a bucket because your toilet won’t flush rather than fixing the pipes.

The academic research backs this up and there are mountains of reports that show that not only do many of these ‘solutions to homelessness’ not improve the situation, they can actually make it worse by diverting resources, energy and attention from the real long term solutions.

Moving beyond emergency responses and into long-term solutions

So, what are those real solutions? 

Firstly, we need a lot more social rented housing. In Shelter’s report “Building for our future: A vision for social housing” they recommend the building of 3.1 million social rented homes over the next 20 years. “Coming Home”, the report instigated by the Archbishop of Canterbury discusses 2-3 million affordable homes over the next 20 years. The Chartered Institute of Housing is more modest, calling for an additional 90,000 affordable homes per year over the next 10 years. 

But this is against a backdrop of almost 200,000 social rented homes being sold via Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ nationally in the last 10 years. At its height, Bristol City Council owned and rented 49,000 homes, almost a third of all the housing in the city. It is now around 26,000, 13% of the city’s stock. Even adding housing association homes only brings this up to 18% of housing in Bristol being social housing.

Secondly, we need to scale up on a massive scale the Housing First programmes which take people from the streets straight into their own self-contained flat with the support needed to sustain their independent living. This support has to be tailored to the individual needs of each person. Providing secure, safe, permanent housing is a necessary foundation to a whole range of recovery models and is the foundation for employment, education and training. Bristol’s housing first pilot, Golden Key, is lottery funded for eight years and is doing some great work, but it is not operating at scale nor does it have long-term funding. In Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham Housing First is funded by the government through the metro mayors. I raised this with Tim Bowles but little happened, hopefully the new metro mayor Dan Norris can revive a drive for money for this across the West of England.

The third is a benefits system which aims to support rather than penalise people. The limits on benefit support for renting, such as the local housing allowance, the bedroom cap and the benefit cap have all driven people out of their homes. The sanctions regime has not only forced people onto the streets but also kept many there. It looks like starving people into submission has somehow become part of the foundation of a civilised society.

This three-pronged approach to solving the homelessness crisis is backed up by a wide range of commissions, research reports and policy papers. A useful gateway into the academic literature can be found in this report looking at the provision of charitable services to rough sleepers in Australia, which makes the case more eloquently than I can, with plenty of references for further reading. 

We need to move beyond the emergency responses, which tend to prolong homelessness rather than solve it. We need to get behind the actions which solve the problem, rather than those which make those of us with homes feel good. The answer is not more containers, more tents and more boxes on the street, it’s more social housing, more support and fairer benefits.

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  • Thanks For your sound suggestions, I only hope the right people read it, accept and act on it, hopefully in my lifetime. I am sure you know the favourite saying we hear from councils up and down the country…you can’t rush these things!


  • I know you’re right, you know you’re right, it’s a pity that more people don’t know you’re right


  • I had a meeting with paul once as i was part of a group that built and distribute tents to people in extreme weather. he was as dismissive then of the idea that there was any credence in our actions and that by providing tents to people sleeping in extreme weather conditions made them more comfortable and detered them from entering into shelters or programme. I believe was he underestimated the sheer number of people on the street and overstate the services available to them. I disagree with Paul’s statement that providing rough sleepers with tents or containers draws attention away from the real problem. Lets look at his Toilet analogy. I FULLY SUPPORT the fixing of the pipes but whilst people still live with a broken toilet and there is a use for the bucket. without it the poop overflows. If pauls toilet were broken I’d help him with a bucket whilst he waited for a housing minister to fix the pipes. I would also take advice from him on how to fix the pipes. The idea that people providing a tent or container do so to make themselves “feel good” is offensive.


    • Tom we have had the problem since Thatcher sold the Council houses without replacing them. Tents are sticking plaster response for the immediate need. This allows the government to carry on mismanaging the housing crisis.


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