Well, yes, I see the point.
In St Louis, Missouri, they went one step farther. Abandoning the usual approach to rough sleepers, where permanent housing is seen as the goal of rehabilitation, the city authorities decided to make housing the first step on the journey back to normality, not the last. They simply rented some apartments, approached their hardest cases, gave them the keys to their own free homes, and showed them how to get there. No strings, no process, no hassle. It worked. The toughest of vagrants started coming inside.
Of course it isn\’t quite that simple. With the litany of problems, physical and mental, that assail the majority of rough sleepers, huge amounts of support are needed to maintain a life inside. But how much better and cheaper to support and manage their needs indoors than out. And boy, do we have the skills to do that.
Over the past ten years, local authorities, charities and church groups have become masters at keeping people indoors once they get there, but it\’s getting the last few through the door that is the problem.
The logjam could be broken and the warring factions reunited by doing exactly what the Americans are doing: giving away homes free to chronic rough sleepers, and then working to keep them indoors.
Are you spluttering “Just give them a flat?! The same flat I have to work all week to pay for? Are you mad?!”?
If the moral argument that we have a duty to the unfortunate doesn\’t sway you, then the economics might. In Britain, though, the maths is hard to do. Government direct spending on rough sleepers is hidden within general housing grants and we have absolutely no idea what burden this small, troubled group places upon the NHS. Throw in local authority spending, and the budgets of the many homeless charities, and my rough estimate puts the number at anything up to £30,000 a year for each rough sleeper: enough to rent a one-bed flat in Chelsea and pay the minimum full-time wage, and have change left over.
Given that we are indeed talking about a hard core of a few hundred, perhaps a thousand or two, across the country, simply renting a flat for them and handing over the keys could well be a cheaper option than the current system. But what happens then? What happens when people find out that all you\’ve got to do to get a free flat is to go and sleep rough for a bit? (The definition of "a bit" being absolutely crucial.)
For people do respond to incentives. I\’m not sure that I\’d do it in the winter but I can imagine myself in younger years, perhaps over the summer break from uni or something, sleeping rough for a few weeks in order to get a free flat. And if I can imagine myself doing that, me from a background of some privilege, how many other people would take that, arguably, entirely rational decision?