Politicians and charities talk in glowing and unambiguously positive terms about the home.
2021 was the year of “it’s coming home”, 2020 was the year of “stay at home, save lives” and charities are increasingly convinced that ‘housing first’ is one of the best ways to help people that have experienced homelessness.
This enthusiasm and uniformly positive rhetoric can obscure the obvious reality that the home is a place where a lot of harm is caused.
Home is the place where domestic abuse takes place, where people feel lonely and where people engage in some of their most self destructive behaviours around drink and drugs
Home is a hard place to be if your home is overcrowded, in disrepair or poorly adapted to your needs.
Home is a constant source of anxiety and stress if you cannot afford your rent or if your neighbours are harassing you.
What would it look and feel like if we grappled with these obvious truths? If we thought not just about helping people find a home and sustain their home but if we considered how we could make people’s experience of the home better, or at least less bad?
It’s back to school for lots of kids today. To illustrate the size of the challenges to improve housing in England, imagine a classroom of 30 children represents the population of England. In that classroom
7 children are in poverty
5 are in non-decent homes
2 are in ‘rent induced’ poverty (ie they are not in poverty before the cost of housing but are after the cost of housing)
1 is in an overcrowded household
A third of a child is homeless (including sofa surfing and living in temporary accommodation)
The number of people sleeping rough on the streets of England might in some way be related to things like the number of empty homes, the number of new homes that are built or the average price of a new home, but they clearly aren’t the main cause.
The government has committed to eliminating rough sleeping
Many migrants who are legally in the UK have “no recourse to public funds” (NRTPF) as part of the conditions of them being allowed to stay in the country
People with no recourse to public funds cannot claim housing benefit or local housing allowance
This has presented a long standing challenge to those who try to stop people having to sleep on the streets. For example, in 2018 St Mungos found that, of the 158 homeless people who died in London since 2010, 46% were non-UK nationals
On 26 March 2020 the government launched the “Everyone In” campaign by writing to local authority chief executives in England, asking them to urgently accommodate all rough sleepers in emergency accommodation “by the end of the week” in order to protect health and prevent wider transmission. This included people who would not normally be covered by homelessness legislation
By mid-May 2020, local authorities reported having taken in 2,500 people who were not eligible for statutory homelessness assistance
In March 2021 The Minister told a select committee that “the department does not currently collect data on the number of individuals with NRPF in emergency accommodation or in move on accommodation, but that data collected at the end of May 2020 suggested that around 2,500 of the 14,610 people in emergency accommodation were people who would not normally be eligible for statutory homelessness assistance.”
While we are in a pandemic Local Authorities and Central Government have put in place a number of measures to keep a roof over the heads of people with no recourse to public funds but these measures will not last.
The Mayor of London’s website says that he “is working with the Government, London boroughs and charities to find… longer-term solutions. This work presents a huge challenge, especially for non-UK nationals who may not have access to benefits in the UK. The Mayor is continuing to push the Government to provide the funding and make the policy changes needed to open up options for non-UK nationals.”
The National Audit Office found that “Everyone In has resulted in a large number of people remaining in emergency accommodation and not being able to move on from it because they have no recourse to public funds. The government needs to establish what action it will take with this population”
What’s the difference between someone experiencing homelessness and someone with a place they call “home”?
One answer is that people that experience homelessness do not have anyone that they can call to give them a home and they cannot get one themselves. Why do we think giving people a home is the sole solution to this situation? It isn’t but there are pioneering practitioners we can learn from as we seek to support people experiencing homelessness to find a home and to build support social networks.
As the chart below shows, some of the most common reasons for losing your home in the UK are to do with relationships breaking down. It might be that someone has been asked to leave the home by their friends and family, domestic abuse, breaking up with a partner or other forms of violence or harassment.
Huge numbers of people in the UK do not have people that they feel they can rely on or have bitter experience of being abused by those closest to them. The housing system reacts to this but does little or nothing to address it.
1 in 20 people do not think that they could rely on someone from their family if there was a serious problem.
Even before the pandemic, more than 1 in 20 people said they often or always feel lonely.
Between 5-10% of adults say they were victims of sexual abuse before the age of 16.
1 in 12 say they have been victims of domestic abuse in the last year.
It is not suprising some of the people who are always lonely, who have been victims or sexual abuse as a child, who have been victims of domestic abuse or who do not feel that they can rely on anyone in their family for help, end up homeless.
How does the state or charities working with people that experience homelessness respond to this? For many organisations the focus is, understandably, on finding people appropriate accommodation as quickly as possible.
There seems to be a couple of implicit assumptions here: either stable housing will provide a foundation from which people can build supportive relationships OR there’s nothing that can be done to help people to build these relationships, so the focus should be on getting the fundamental needs addressed. I do not believe either of these statements.
We know that there’s very little evidence that providing people that previously experienced homelessness with stable accommodation leads to “social integration”.
We also know that people are increasingly challenging the notion, commonly associated with Maslow, that housing is in some way a more fundamental need than positive relationships.
Years ago, when I was volunteering at a nightshelter I had to tell someone they were not allowed to stay at the shelter if they insisted on bringing their dog with them. He replied “but I love my dog”. He certainly did not see housing as more important than relationships.
Those working to end homelessness in the UK can learn a lot from these practitioners and start to support people that have experienced homelessness to both get a home and start to build positive relationships.
Saul Alinsky said “the problems facing inner-city communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions;” We can say the same thing about ending homelessness in the UK.
We know how to end homelessness. It could happen quickly and across the whole country.
A recent report from the LSE gives us many of the answers. They reference detailed work looking at what would happen to homelessness in the UK under a range of scenarios.
They found that the two most promising approaches were what they call “no welfare cuts” and “max prevention”.
“No welfare cuts” perhaps does not need much explaining. Despite the ongoing pandemic, the government has taken the decision to freeze the local housing allowance. This comes after a prolonged period of austerity where the government has consistently reduced the generosity of the housing benefit system.
Linking the amount of housing benefit that people can claim to local rents would quickly and permanently reduce the number of people that become homeless each year.
Perhaps as important as the amount that is given out is who gets it. The current housing benefit system is complex and stigmatised. Every year billions go unclaimed. Anyone that has worked in homeless services or benefits advice knows that the system can be particularly hard to access for people who face other stresses and strains. Changing this would have a dramatic impact.
“Max prevention” refers to the type of joined up approach to preventing homelessness that is used in Newcastle. This means involving huge numbers of different people from different organisations in identifying those that are at risk of becoming homeless and helping them, with advice and support. This might sound straightforward but it involves lots of training and facilitating networks, all of which requires resources.
Although not easy, both these approaches could be rolled out at pace, nationally
Housing benefit is not looked upon fondly by many politicians or activists. It’s often portrayed as a “subsidy for landlords”. Similarly, the idea that people who work in churches or pubs or bookies might be able to spot and help people that are at risk of becoming homeless goes against many people’s political instincts.
Nonetheless, if we want to quickly end homelessness we need to embrace these approaches and commit to creating a generous social security system that protects people and mobilising all our communities’ resources to ensure people get good quality advice and support before they end up sleeping rough.
Moving to the countryside is not just a great premise for a column in the Evening Standard, it also holds the potential to help ease overcrowding in London.
Recently, Jade Beer scored a viral hit with her piece “I left London for the countryside and it was nothing like I dreamed” which follows in the long tradition of columns explaining “why I am leaving London”.
One group that isn’t leaving London in significant numbers is older social housing residents with empty bedrooms.
In fact, once people start renting a home from a Local Authority or Housing Association, they are far less likely to move than was previously the case. In the mid 1990s there were around 50k new social housing lets per year in London. That number has steadily declined and now stands at below 20k.
At the same time the number of overcrowded households has increased
There are around 110k overcrowded households in social housing in London, almost all have children. This is a big problem since living in overcrowded accommodation is really bad for you and your children and it is a much bigger problem in London than elsewhere in England.
Once you are an overcrowded household renting from a Local Authority or Housing Association you’ve got very little chance of being able to move to a larger place as these do not become empty in significant numbers, and it is very rare for households to move from social renting to private renting (as the rent in London is so high).
Apart from building new social housing units, there are a couple of London-wide schemes which are designed to respond to this situation including the Seaside and Countryside Homes scheme, whereby households that are “underoccupying” are given incentives to move to the coast so that a family can move into the now empty home.
Currently, very few people take advantage of this scheme. Fewer than 200 households per year. (Some local authorities or housing associations run similar schemes, most with similarly small take up).
If money was less of an issue these are schemes that could do a great deal of good, supporting older people to move to more suitable accommodation and allowing families to move into less cramped homes. Given how little grant there is for social housing at the moment, it’s understandable that the focus is on building new homes, rather than supporting people to move into existing properties.
However, a less punitive approach than the much reviled bedroom tax, has great potential to enable young people to grow up with a room of their own, free from the strife and illness that are often associated with overcrowded flats. Rather than trying to fine people into moving to smaller accommodation we should be giving them attractive options and easing their moves. It could even be a regular series in the Evening Standard, “why I swapped my Camden Council flat for life by the sea” has a ring to it.
As of September 2020, 120,570 children were living in temporary accommodation. For the past 10 years, the numbers have been steadily increasing, a situation that the pandemic has only worsened.
Around ¾ of the money that local authorities spend on homlessness goes on renting temporary accommodation, but it is very hard to assess whether this provides value for money. We know, for example, that Much of this expenditure goes to private landlords who provide their accommodation to local authorities on a nightly basis, a “market” that has increased in value considerably.
The Government should learn from the successes of Labour who preceded over a halving of the number of households living in temporary accommodation between 2005 and 2010.