‘Homelessness is a moral stain’ | Andrew Copson

3 April, 2024

Recent news announced after Easter that the UK Government plans to criminalise homelessness in the form of rough sleeping has rightly sent shockwaves of condemnation not just through the charity and human rights sector where I work, but if reports are to be believed, through the Cabinet as well. 

Homelessness in the United Kingdom has long been a serious problem — a failure of successive governments to price the dignity and welfare of homeless people above other political concerns. But this policy risks sinking to new lows of pointless cruelty. And it deliberately loses sight of the fact that having a safe place to call home is not a privilege, but a fundamental human right, essential to human survival.

Ever since they were promulgated, Humanists UK has strongly endorsed those human rights treaties, signed by the UK, which recognise secure housing as a human right. But more than that, housing is very often the most important foundation upon which human beings can flourish and be their best selves. Through treaties, this view is echoed in various pieces of national and international law, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act.

Every human being deserves a safe place to eat, sleep, recharge, find refuge, develop close relationships, and enjoy privacy. A home is more than just a shelter; it is a bedrock for personal development and wellbeing. As well as a legal duty, it is a moral duty of governments to see to it that no one is without a safe place to call home. The crisis of homelessness is not just an economic or social issue; it is a profound moral and practical failure of Home Office policy and economic policy, for which none of the major parties have clean hands.

The reaction to the news floated this week suggests that the public overwhelmingly recognises the humanity of homeless people, even if individuals often complain of empathy fatigue as the crisis of homelessness on our streets appears to escalate year on year. Most people can reason from looking at their own lives just how essential secure housing is for dignity, a stable life, and a humane society.

Confronting the homelessness and housing crises demands real action, rooted in a human rights-based approach. Humanists UK is not a homelessness charity but earlier in our history we were involved in providing solutions to housing crises through organisations like the Humanist Housing Association – part of today’s Origin Housing – and soup kitchens for the inner city poor. Experts I’ve spoken to tell me that the problem is a practical one involving political trade-offs, but not an insoluble one. They say governments can act to increase the supply of housing through construction, funding improvements to make existing homes liveable, and establishing more transitional shelters for those in immediate need. We all saw in the pandemic how homelessness was reduced to zero overnight when governments willed it!

Every human right is a reflection of a fundamental human need, and the right to housing is no different. It reflects an inescapable, evolutionary need for shelter and security, fundamental to human survival and flourishing. Like food or water, housing is non-negotiable. Shelter and hot food propelled human evolution and are the reason for our species’ survival. We evolved with and around them. Houses are as natural to humans as dens are to badgers or hives are to bees.

The UK’s widespread crisis of homelessness reveals a troubling truth: the humanity of those without homes has been undervalued and overshadowed. Such dehumanisation allows society to ignore the basic needs shared by all humans for shelter, security, and dignity. When homelessness becomes a widespread crisis, it signifies a profound failure of perspective, reducing real people to mere shadows in society’s periphery.

Some good may yet come of this latest political fiasco. Given the potential for a major rebellion, many are unconvinced that the Government will be able to translate its proposal into law. We urge them to drop it now. Instead, we ask the Conservatives and Labour, along with the DUP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, and the SNP in Scotland, to think imaginatively about ending homelessness, recognising the equal humanity of the over 300,000 people in the UK who lack a place to call home.


For further information or comment, please contact Kathy Riddick on press@humanists.uk.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 120,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.