The fight to combat homelessness

Patrick Mooney, housing consultant and news editor of Housing, Management & Maintenance, explains why he believes Whitehall politicians need to up their game in the fight to combat homelessness and cut unnecessary deaths.

It was a sad indictment of the Government’s welfare and support policies when news emerged just before Christmas that the number of deaths of homeless people had risen yet again, to another all time high. It’s the sort of record that is very unwelcome and best avoided. It is also not inevitable.

What made it worse was the reaction of the Secretary of State James Brokenshire and his junior ministers who trotted out a consistent line about how homelessness is a complicated subject, with many different causes and that the current administration is doing all that it can to address these.

In town halls the length and breadth of the country these statements were met with hollow laughs and much shaking of heads. Housing bosses and councillors are having to cope with much smaller budgets than they had before the 2008 financial crash. But the scale of the housing sector’s problems and difficulties are all getting worse — whether it’s availability, affordability or providing emergency accommodation.

The Office of National Statistics prompted this latest bout of handwringing and conscience searching when it revealed that at least 597 homeless people had died in 2017, up 24 per cent on the figure from five years ago.

London and the north west of England have the highest rates of deaths among the homeless, with the average age of those who have died being in the early to mid 40s, far below the average life expectancy of the general population. It was so shocking that it made the lead stories on BBC Radio 4’s main evening news programme and the 10 o’clock news on BBC TV later.

Much of the media attention focused on the death of a homeless Hungarian man in a subway at Westminster, by the House of Commons. Indeed the Labour MP David Lammy tweeted:

“There is something rotten in Westminster when MPs walk past dying homeless people on their way to work.”

Rough sleeping

This was actually the second recorded death in the same subway in the past 12 months. But there were almost 600 other people who lost their lives by dint of their unsettled housing status over the course of the year and each one of them represented a personal tragedy and a lost opportunity.

The figures for homeless deaths were released by the ONS just over five months after the Government published its rough sleeping strategy, with an ambitious target of halving rough sleeping by 2022 and ending it entirely by 2027. It was backed by a £75 million fund for local authorities with high levels of rough sleeping to use in 2018 to 2020.

Compare this sum to the reported £2 billion fund preparing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit which many in Westminster regard as an expensive gamble in Theresa May’s negotiations with the EU. The vast difference between the two figures challenges the basis for Government claims that they will leave no stone unturned in their campaign “to give everyone in our society the opportunities, dignity and security they need to build a better life.”

Ministers, their political advisors and civil servants all know that the principal reason for homelessness continues to be the growing number of evictions from privately rented properties, with tenants failing to cope with the complexities of Universal Credit, or Discredit as it is increasingly being known. Instead they have trotted out lines about drug abuse, alcoholism and illegal immigrants.

The reality is that many of those living in temporary accommodation, staying in cars or sleeping on friends’ sofas is that they are working in low paid jobs and cannot afford spiraling housing costs. There are an estimated 120,000 children staying in temporary accommodation each night this winter – a figure that should force Government Ministers of the fifth biggest economy in the world, into taking strong and resolute action.

Some seeds of optimism have been sewn by the new Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, who told MPs that she will consider policy changes and rollout delays to restore public confidence in Universal Credit. Before the Work and Pensions Committee, Rudd said her priority was to make UC safe for vulnerable claimants. She said she was willing to look again at the rollout, as she did not want to see its implementation rushed to meet “arbitrary timetables”.

More affordable housing needed

Her cabinet colleague Mr Brokenshire has recently been benefitting from a huge jump in popularity across local authority housing departments due to decisions to remove the HRA borrowing cap from councils, increases in the budget for affordable housing and a host of statements in support of low cost, affordable, rented housing.

It felt like a huge step change had been made in Conservative policies towards council housing. Even where people thought this was being done for cynical electoral purposes, they really did not care if the result was a significant growth in the numbers of affordable homes being built.

While the right levers are being pulled to get more affordable homes built, we are still losing thousands of low-rent homes as they are being sold to sitting tenants through the Right to Buy. This has forced many thousands of people into the private rented sector, where they have found their rents to be higher and their tenancy far less secure. Retaliatory evictions where landlords kick out tenants, who have complained about a long outstanding repair or a safety issue, are on the increase and long promised protections have yet to be seen.

The Homeless Reduction Act 2017 was widely welcomed by the housing sector when it was passed, but it has imposed many additional responsibilities on local authorities while only granting them relatively small extra funds and only for a temporary period.

What is really needed is a properly resourced and long-term commitment to deliver on a wide range of programmes. These should deliver a huge increase in the number of truly affordable homes across the country, new laws to safeguard tenancies and changes to the welfare system so fewer evictions take place due to rent arrears. We need the prevention, early intervention programmes and support to help homeless people to rebuild their lives, but it would be much better if we could also tackle the root causes of the problem.

Over 200 housing associations have pledged to tackle homelessness by signing a commitment to refer ‘at risk’ cases to councils. This initiative was launched by the National Housing Federation in October 2018 and it means HAs are agreeing to notify councils of anyone they know of who is at risk of homelessness and in working together with councils on trying to prevent the person becoming homeless.

More money and practical help

This duty already applies to other public bodies but HAs are better placed than many to help councils discharge their legal duties. The NHF’s new chief executive Kate Henderson said the past decade had seen homelessness increase on an “unimaginable” scale. She hopes to see every HA to sign up to the commitment in 2019.

Council chiefs would appreciate even more practical help from their social housing partners. Closer working by staff teams, quicker access to properties which become available, carrying out fewer evictions (particularly of families with children) and an extension of welfare support policies to assist ‘at risk’ groups are all being pursued.

Meanwhile Councillor Martin Tett, the Local Government Association’s housing spokesman had a clear message for policy makers in Whitehall. He said:

“Councils are determined to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping from happening in the first place and to support affected families. This is increasingly difficult with homelessness services facing a funding gap of more than £100 million in 2019/20. Proper resourcing of local government funding is essential if we are going to end rising homelessness.

“Councils also need to keep 100 per cent of the receipts of any homes they sell to replace them and reinvest in building more of the genuinely affordable homes they desperately need and the ability to adapt welfare reforms to prevent people from losing their home where possible.”

The Chartered Institute of Housing is suggesting that the Government should either suspend the Right to Buy, or it should allow councils to use all of the sale receipts to pay for their replacement. In the latest published statistics for the period July to September 2018, there were 2,417 council homes sold to tenants while just 1,160 starts on new homes or acquisitions were made. This shortfall of 1,250 homes in the quarter is repeating the pattern of recent years.

Clearly what we need to see is a joined up programme of policies and initiatives that work together and not against each other. Let’s hope that in their New Year resolutions, Messrs Brokenshire and Rudd have committed to overseeing a significant drop in the number of needless deaths and hardship cases caused by their department’s policies.