I doubt many people reading will have known this before now, but I think my story is relevent to this article. I was a resident at a Foyer Association hostel during my second year of sixth form. My year there was an experience that I think has done me good in some respects, but one I certainly wouldn’t want to repeat. A large portion of my time there (when not at college or attempting to sleep) was spent wrangling with government bureaucracy, not knowing whether I’d end up with nowhere to live a few weeks down the line. No spare cash to resort to and virtually nothing coming in, and therefore no heating and lousy food – usually either pasta by itself or dry wheat biscuits (Weetabix for you posh-uns). If it wasn’t for support from family and friends during that time, I don’t know where I would be now.
I don’t blame the Foyer Association for my problems during the time (apart from the night staff not dealing with the drug-infused and insanely loud parties until 4am almost every night), I blame the government. When the welfare state was set up the idea was to act as a safety net so that nobody would fall through, it would prop up the needy and give them the chance to bounce back. I very nearly fell through the cracks, and many other have done. Once you’ve fallen through, once you have no address, or if you lack documents for one reason or another you are stuck. Nowhere to go, no government agency to help. The vast bureaucracies don’t care about you, you are no longer a statistic, forgotten as the unnumbered prole you’ve become.
If you don’t tick the boxes perfectly, even if you are honest and in need, you often get refused help. The rationing that is natural in any government program overrules logic and common-sense. Many in government departments would rather throw a student working towards something out on the street than break what they perceive to be the rules – even if it actually costs the taxpayer more to do so. It is often better for the individual to lie to get benefits, even if they’re actually in need. This is why I am in favour of privatising the benefit system – there will always be some people who need help, who have fallen on hard times. The current government system doesn’t seem aimed at helping them. Instead it seems aimed at helping the feckless, the liars, the lazy who have no intention of working or trying to improve their lot. Whilst people aiming to better their lot or have simply fallen on bad times are often hit hard, those who wish to drink, smoke and snort until 4 a.m. almost every night, never looking for work or training can do so. The system is broken to that extent. Now is no time to add more bureaucracy and checks (such as welfare cash cards), it will only make the problem worse. We don’t want to see government policy generate black markets, we want to see people have better lives. Those who work or seriously aim to do so should be helped, not punished.
Private charities like Centrepoint seem to do good work at targeting help for those who fall through the gaps – those who do not qualify for most government help. Not just by throwing money at the issue, but by actively helping them to improve their lot through counselling, training and other aid -help that is specially targeted to the specific needs of young homeless people. That sort of charity to help those who have fallen through the cracks, alongside Friendly Societies to organise normal welfare for those who fall on hard times is what is needed. We do not need more state spending to fix the problem, it will naturally end up inflating the size of the Department of Work and Pensions than get to where it is needed on the ground.
Given my own personal experience, I do not trust the government, any government, to organise welfare fairly. Government systems ignore those who are homeless, once you don’t have an address you don’t count any more, you are off the sort of statistics that the government cares about. You are no longer a target. The government is always going to have these bureaucratic problems (due to not having an alternative to the price mechanism), they are never going to have the welfare of those on the very edge in mind, they will ration goods with no understanding of the effects on the ground. This is why the government should leave welfare altogether.
Being homeless, or on the verge of being so, is not a happy place to be – do not leave it to the government to fix the problems. The government will not ensure that homelessness ends, it will instead put arbitrary barriers in place that will ensure that a (thankfully small) number of people fall through the gaps. There is a safety net, but it is full of holes, it is time for the private sector to stitch the net back together before it rips under the weight of the high costs it encourages.