THE Government’s claim that “a strong safety net” is available to homeless people was disputed by charities this week. They said that a root cause of rough sleeping was a lack of truly affordable housing.
The day after the publication on Monday of its rough-sleeping strategy, the Government published a Green Paper on social housing which contains no extra money towards building it, despite a waiting list of 1.2 million people.
The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who chairs both a housing association and the Manchester Homelessness Partnership, said on Tuesday that there had been a “dramatic” rise in homelessness “because there are now bigger holes in the safety net than there used to be”.
“We are getting better at coming up with interventions to help people who have ended up on the streets, but they should not be ending up there in the first place,” he said. “It is, to be honest, the lack of sufficient, cheap, affordable housing at the entry point on the scale.”
Among the factors behind a dearth in suitable housing was a rise in students offering landlords better profits. He had met people staying in church night-shelters who were employed on zero-hours contracts, and an “alarming” rise in women.
Since 2010, rough sleeping (measured by a count on a single night) has risen 169 per cent, from 1768 to 4751. In its manifesto, the Government pledged to halve it over the course of this Parliament, and eliminate it altogether by 2027. It has already announced £1.2 billion up to 2020 to tackle homelessness, and passed the Homelessness Reduction Act, which gives councils new duties to support people at risk of homelessness.
But in September, the National Audit Office concluded that welfare reforms, in combination with soaring private rents, had contributed to the rise in homelessness. It pointed out that councils had “limited options” for housing homeless families, given a “significant reduction” in social housing (News, 15 September 2017).
The new strategy acknowledges that “ending rough sleeping starts with secure and affordable housing”, and that many people in emergency accommodation are stymied by “a lack of suitable move-on accommodation”. It also notes that the Government is investing £9 billion in “affordable housing” — defined as costing 80 per cent of market cost — and is giving £1 billion of “funding flexibility” to help councils borrow to build more houses.
But charities, while welcoming the strategy as a first step, voiced concerns. Lord Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association, said that councils were currently housing more than 79,000 homeless families and 123,000 children in temporary housing.
“Councils want to end all homelessness by preventing it from happening in the first place,” he said. “This means allowing councils to build more social homes, reviewing welfare reforms, and ensuring councils have the certainty, resources, and tools they need to bring together services around people at risk of becoming homeless.”
The chief executive of Shelter, Polly Neate, welcomed it as a “significant first step”, but described a housing system “plagued by a chronic lack of genuinely affordable homes, deep instability, and problems with housing benefit”. The delayed Green Paper, published on Tuesday, was “full of warm words but doesn’t commit a single extra penny towards building the social homes needed by the 1.2 million people on the waiting list”.
“The word ‘affordable’ does not mean what you or I might think it means,” Dr Walker said. “You might think that if you produce properties for sale and shared ownership, people will free up cheaper social housing for others; but there is no evidence of that happening.”
People who had been homeless needed “light-level support” in their new home, he said, to help them deal with physical and mental-health issues. The private sector could not be relied on, because such people were “not the go-to tenants of choice”.
Researchers at Heriot-Watt University estimate that England needs 340,000 new homes to be built a year until 2031, of which 90,000 should be for social rent. To date, councils have been restricted in how much they can build by borrowing caps, rent reductions, Right to Buy, and changes to housing benefit.
Launching the Green Paper, the Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, said that “quality and fair social housing” was “a priority for this Government”. Its proposals include strengthening the social-housing regulator, and a league table for the sector. It also suggests that residents will be able to buy as little as one per cent of their homes each year (yet pledges to tackle the “stigma” about living in social housing rather than buying a property), and reverses plans forcing councils to sell higher value stock.
A raft of proposals are included in the rough-sleepers strategy, although Mr Brokenshire confirmed on Monday that no new money was entailed: half had already been committed, and half was being reallocated from other departments.
Among the proposals welcomed by Ms Neate — Shelter was part of the advisory panel — are a £19-million fund to help 5000 people at risk hold on to their tenancies, and a £100-million “Move On Fund” for those leaving hostels and domestic-abuse refuges. Other proposals include a review of the Vagrancy Act, and a safeguarding adult review conducted whenever a person who sleeps rough dies or is harmed. The homelessness charity Crisis estimates that the average age of death for a person who dies on the streets is 47.
The NHS has been asked to spend up to £30 million over the next five years on health services for people who sleep rough, and more than 500 new dedicated homelessness workers will be funded. This was welcomed by Dr Walker, who helped to launch a report by the Manchester Homelessness Partnership’s Mental Health Action Group, Cause and Consequence: Mental health and homelessness, in Manchester last week. It was produced by people who had experienced mental ill-health and homelessness.
The decision not to look at affordability in the private sector until 2020, when the local-housing allowance freeze ends, was criticised by the chief executive of the youth homelessness charity Depaul UK, Mike Thiedke. He said that, by this point, “more young people will be sleeping rough because they can’t find anywhere they can afford to live”.
The charity’s own rough-sleeping report, Life on the Streets, says that in 40 areas in England where government figures showed that 225 young people slept rough on a single night, only 57 privately rented rooms were available to young, single people who claim housing benefit: one room for every four rough sleepers.
The chief executive of Caritas Social Action Network, Dr Phil McCarthy, urged landlords to “take greater responsibility: by accepting more tenants on benefits and, where practical, making property prices more affordable.”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that one in six 55- to 64-year-olds owns a second property. Housing Justice has called on landlords in congregations to view it as their Christian duty to take the lowest rents possible, and to accept benefit payments (News, 7 November 2014).