A perfect engine for driving homelessness

In a nation with nowhere to call home

They couldn’t have designed it better if they tried. Welfare reform and a lack of genuinely affordable housing have combined to create the perfect vehicle for driving people out of a secure home. No wonder homelessness is rising

By Mark Cantrell 
First published in Housing magazine

SOONER or later something’s got to give; maybe it already is. Society’s foundations are beginning to buckle under the strain of a housing crisis compounded by welfare reform. Now the cracks are beginning to show, if recent reports on rising homelessness are anything to go by.

But neither the housing crisis, decades in the making, nor the more recent erosion of the social safety net, result from the acts of some malign deity; both are the product of human agency. Quite where conspiracy ends and cock-up takes the upper hand (or is it the other way around?) is anybody’s guess, but the sum total of policy for the best part of a decade appears to have combined to create the perfect mechanism for excluding more and more people from a secure home.

While those on moderate incomes might ‘just about manage’ and somehow cling on, at least for now, inevitably it’s those at the lower end of the income spectrum who are in imminent danger of being priced out of a home – if they haven’t already.
The theme is well-made by the latest ‘Homelessness Monitor: England’, funded by the charity Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). The state-of-the-nation report leaves no doubt: people are caught between the lack of genuinely affordable housing on one side, devouring the lion’s share of incomes; welfare reform on the other, hacking away the support they might once have received.

Councils are feeling the pinch too. According to the report, almost two thirds of local authorities in England – that’s 64% – are struggling to find tenancies for homeless people, while half are finding it “very difficult” to assist people into private rented accommodation.

Young homeless people and large families are the hardest for local authorities to house, it adds, with 85% of responding councils admitting they have difficulties finding a place for single people aged 25-34, and 88% saying the same for large families.

Indeed, the report highlights a potentially bleak future for young single people, identifying them as being at a far greater risk of homelessness than older adults. The report cites a toxic cocktail of rising unemployment, “spiralling” rents, and – in particular – declining benefit protection for withering their future life chances.

“The combination of continued welfare reform, increasing housing pressures and cuts to local government funding, are making it even harder for low income households to find a place to
live,” said the report’s lead author, Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, of Herriott Watt University. “The Homelessness Reduction Bill, once enacted, will enable local authorities to provide more help for all households at the prevention stage, with particular improvements for single people. But as this year’s report shows, more investment in affordable housing solutions are required to meet this need.”

Sadly, it seems highly likely that the provision of more genuinely affordable homes is the last thing we’ll see as a bulwark against a feared increase in homelessness. But there’s plenty more welfare reform – as cuts to provision are euphemistically called – with the continuing rollout of Universal Credit, the ending of entitlement to housing benefits for 18-21 year olds, and cuts to local housing allowance.

The “overwhelming majority” (89%) of councils who responded to the survey for the Homelessness Monitor expressed concerns that Universal Credit will exacerbate the problem, mainly because they fear it will put private landlords off letting to homeless people. Meanwhile, local housing allowance falls well short of rents in many localities, as research by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has recently reminded. Again, it presents a further barrier to councils finding a roof for homeless people.

“The situation for the thousands who find themselves homeless in England is becoming more and more desperate each year,” said Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis. “Until the number of truly affordable rented homes increases significantly, councils will continue to come under huge financial pressure, with dreadful consequence for the most vulnerable in our society.

“Private renting is often the only choice homeless people have. That’s why Crisis is calling on the Government to invest in schemes that support people into the private rented sector, such as establishing and underwriting a national rent deposit guarantee. The Government is already pouring billions into Help to Buy support. What we really need is ‘Help to Rent’.”

Brian Robson, the JRF’s policy and research manager, added: “A dearth of affordable, secure rented housing is driving up homelessness in the UK. Theresa May’s Government has been clear that rented housing has a vital part to play in solving the housing crisis but, without more action, a lack of housing will mean that increasing numbers are left at risk of homelessness.

“The Government has set out welcome plans to build new homes, but these will not be within reach of families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. We need action to make sure that new homes are available to people at all income levels, and that there is a safety net in place for those who are at risk of homelessness. The Government is considering action to increase the amount of support available, but this will only work if there is enough funding and enough homes to cope with demand. In the immediate term, lifting the freeze on working age benefits would help to stop people’s incomes falling even further behind.”

Prior to the Chancellor’s Spring Budget, the Local Government Association (LGA) offered its own take on how housing shortages are piling the pressure on England’s town halls. The organisation said that over the last three years, councils have spent an estimated £2.6bn to house people in temporary accommodation. Almost 75,000 households are currently living in temporary accommodation, the LGA said; the figure having risen 50% since 2010. The organisation cited a “steady decline” in affordable housing and “squeezes” on household incomes.

“Funding pressures are combining with a lack of affordable housing and private sector rents rising above household incomes to increase homelessness,” said Lord Gary Porter, the LGA’s chairman. “It is also leaving many councils struggling to find suitable accommodation for those in need, particularly those who are young, vulnerable, or with families...

“A renaissance in housebuilding by councils and a plan to reduce the squeeze on household incomes are both needed if we are to stand any chance of solving our housing crisis, reducing homelessness and the use of temporary accommodation, and sustainably reducing the housing benefit bill.”

Earlier, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) launched a report – Housing First – calling for a step-change in how rough sleeping is dealt with. The report, which was backed by Crisis, calls for people sleeping rough to be given their own home along with specialist support to offer them a stable base to get their lives back on track, rather than relying on hostels, as a means of ending chronic homelessness.

“For too long, people have been forced to crisis point before they receive homelessness assistance,” said Andy Cook, the CSJ’s chief executive. “That is why, alongside this key recommendation to end rough sleeping and chronic homelessness, the report outlines the opportunities and interventions to prevent homelessness at the earliest point. Furthermore, this report proposes policies to ensure that those who are homeless can more easily access affordable housing.”

Sparkes said of the report: “[It] could represent a major turning point in our approach to ending homelessness in England. Housing First is based on the simple yet powerful concept that the best way to tackle homelessness is to provide people with accommodation of their own. This sounds obvious, yet it is often the opposite to the way rough sleepers and long-term homeless people are treated.”

Great stuff, but there’s a critical caveat, one that links the rough sleepers with the general homelessness population, with the plight of young people facing benefit cuts, with the households in temporary accommodation, as Sparkes duly pointed out.

“It is important to remember that Housing First does not address the causes of homelessness,” he said. “Government must also address the impact of welfare reform and lack of affordable housing if we are to truly end homelessness in this country.”

We’re back to that again: the double bind that is housing and welfare. No wonder we’re on shaky ground. 

# # #

Homelessness Monitor England

    • 64% of responding councils reported difficulties in accessing social tenancies for homeless applicants, while half (49%) described it as very difficult to assist applicants into the private rented sector
    • Council spending on homelessness has increased by 13% since 2010 reflecting the priority attached to the area by central government but over the same period spending on housing has dropped by 46% in real terms, with an even larger cutback on the Supporting People programme (67%)
    • Nearly 58,000 people were accepted as homeless by their council in 2015/16 – 18,000 higher than 2009/10
    • Housing provision would have to increase by a fifth on last year’s level just to keep pace with demand, let alone ease market pressure
    • Including informal ‘homelessness prevention’ and ‘homelessness relief’ activity, as well as statutory homelessness acceptances, there were some 271,000 ‘local authority homelessness case actions’ in 2015/16, a rise of 32% since 2009/10
    • Loss of a private tenancy accounted for 31% of those accepted as homeless in England
    • Placements in temporary accommodation have risen sharply, with the national total up by 9% in the year to 30 June 2016 – a rise of 52% compared to 2009/10
    • While accounting for 9% of the national total, B&B placements have been rising quickly, and now stand almost 250% higher than in 2009
    • So-called ‘out of area placements’ – where homeless people are placed outside of their home area – now account for 28% of the national total – up from 11% in 2010/11
      # # #

      Official figures

        • Local authorities in England accepted 14,420 households as being statutorily homeless between 1 October and 31 December 2016, down 3% on the previous quarter and down 0.4% on the same quarter of last year
        • The total number of households in temporary accommodation on 31 December 2016 was 75,740, up 10% on a year earlier, and up 58% on the low of 48,010 on 31 December 2010
        • Local authorities took action to prevent and relieve homelessness for 50,970 households between 1 October and 31 December 2016, down 3% on 52,520 in the same quarter of 2015
        • The autumn 2016 total number of rough sleepers counted and estimated is 4,134
        • This is up 565 (16%) from the autumn 2015 total of 3,569
        • The number of rough sleepers has increased by 3% in London and 21% in the rest of England since autumn 2015
        • London had 964 rough sleepers in autumn 2016, which is 23% of the England total. This is down from 26% of the England total in autumn 2015

          This article first appeared in the April/May 2017 print edition of Housing magazine. It subsequently appeared on the Housing Excellence website, 26 May 2017

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