3 ideas for a city that wants to end homelessness

This summer Newcastle City Council and Crisis announced their ambition to make Newcastle “the first city to end homelessness within the next 10 years.” 

How much can be achieved at the city level? Here are 3 ideas for a city level approach to ending homelessness. 

  1. Prevention

No First night out

Many people who end up sleeping rough have previously tried and failed to get help with their housing. Research in Tower Hamlets found that taking a different approach to assessing people’s initial claims for help could significantly reduce the number of people who go on to sleep rough. 

Local rents?

Ant Beach argues that it’s possible to increase the number of houses in a city and that this would in turn reduce rents. Given that city government has little to no power to change benefit levels, wages or security of tenure, it’s worth considering whether an approach that reduces rents might reduce homelessness.

  1. Emergency responses

A significant percentage of people who end up sleeping rough do not qualify for various forms of public assistance. For example, they may be classified as having “no recourse to public funds”. . They may not even be able to access emergency accommodation or day services. They might be offered ‘reconnection’ to the country in which they were born, but they might not take up this offer

While a city can’t change the rules on who is entitled to housing benefit, there could be a role here either coordinating faith and charitable emergency responses or by supplementing the current meagre government provision.

  1. Rehousing

It is widely acknowledged that the most effective support for people who are sleeping rough is to quickly find them secure housing. However, so-called ‘housing first’ models rely on landlords being willing to allocate houses. This is not always the case. 

While a city can’t change the amount of grant they get to build new social housing, there could be a role in either designing a programme to convince private landlords to take on people through a ‘housing first’ programme or to allocate social housing.

While fundamentals around benefits, social housing grant, funding for preventative and responsive homelessness services are the domain of national government, determined action at the level of the city could play a significant part in ending homelessness. 

There’s one born every minute

“There’s one born every minute”

“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public”

A mistrust of the general public is not new but our lack of faith in each other is one of the main reasons we are so despairing of the future and the knowledge that we all think the next person over is a sucker is itself a barrier to effective collective action.

For example, there is a massive difference between how much people think they “can tell real news from ‘fake news’” versus how confident we are that “the average person… can tell real news from ‘fake news’.”

we think our fellow citizens are dupes

It’s not just that we think the general public are dupes. What’s worse is that we know our fellow citizens think we’re dupes. We don’t trust them, they don’t trust us, what hope for collective responses to societal challenges?

The upshot is despair about the future.

Increasing homelessness is a law and order crisis

We know that:

1. Current or recent rough sleepers are almost 17 times more likely to have been victims of violence 

  • More than 1 in 3 have been deliberately hit or kicked or experienced some other form of violence whilst homeless (35%)
  • More than 1 in 3 have had things thrown at them whilst homeless (34%)
  • Almost 1 in 10 have been urinated on whilst homeless (9%)
  • More than 1 in 20 have been the victim of a sexual assault whilst homeless (7%)

2. The number of victims of crime recorded as homeless is increasing year on year

The Met Police recorded following numbers for homeless victims of crime in London:

2013 – 1,630

2014 – 2,212

2015 – 3,833

2016 – 4,897

2017 – 5,527

3. Serious and repeat victimisation is common, and experiences of physical and sexual assault are alarmingly high amongst people sleeping rough.

A recent report found that many homeless people were “fearful of not being believed, being dismissed, or not being seen as credible. Where victims did report to the police, experiences were mixed… [with some feeling] that they were not taken seriously or not being treated fairly or respectfully.”

  • People sleeping rough are more likely than the general public to be victims of crime. 
  • The police are recording increasing numbers of homeless people being victims of crime as the number of people sleeping rough increases
  • This is likely to be the tip of the iceberg since many homeless people will not report being victims of crime

You don’t have to believe, as the Mayor of Liverpool does, that crimes against homeless people should be considered “hate crimes”, but the evidence is clear that increasing homelessness is a law and order crisis which needs more than a law and order solution.

Building more Council Housing is not the best way to reduce rough sleeping

Building more council housing will not, by itself, solve the most severe forms of homelessness and the lack of council housing is not behind the dramatic rise in the number of people sleeping rough.

Jules Birch has recently argued that we should build more social housing to combat homelessness

He’s right to highlight the steep rise in the number of people sleeping in temporary accommodation and to make the case that more social housing would improve the situation.

There are a variety of forms of homelessness, from living in temporary accommodation, to hostels, to sofa surfing, to sleeping rough. Shelter say there are over 300,000 homeless people in Great Britain, of which 5,000 are sleeping rough.

The limitations of council housing as a means to ending rough sleeping can be summed up in one word “Westminster”

In some years over a third of the people sleeping rough in London are sleeping rough in Westminster. For example (according to the CHAIN database) in 2018-19, 2,512 people were seen rough sleeping in Westminster, 28% of all rough sleepers in London. Most of those people were new to the street (1,492 in 2018-19).

Westminster Council has little appetite to build new council housing, and no interest in building thousands of new units each year to house people who are sleeping rough. It’s a Conservative controlled Local Authority that has not build substantial numbers of social housing units in living memory.

Westminster decide who moves in when a council house becomes empty. Their allocations policy stresses that they are keen to give council housing to people who are in work, have “strong links” with Westminser, were in the Armed Forces and so on.

Their rough sleeping strategy sets out that one of the principal ways they want to support people sleeping rough is to “make an offer of a planned reconnection back to their home area”

Each year there are lots of people sleeping rough in Westminster. The Council does not want to build lots of council housing and does not want to give existing council houses to people who are sleeping rough, preferring to move them on.

It’s very hard to look at this and conclude that giving Westminster the money needed to build more council flats will result in the kind of dramatic reduction in the number of people sleeping rough which we desperately need to see.

Who benefits?

For people renting privately, housing benefit is broken.

“The safety net once provided by Housing Benefit, whereby post housing incomes were protected from erosion below basic benefit levels, has now effectively ended for the bulk of private tenants in receipt of benefit across the country”

Homelessness Monitor: England 2019

We spend c.£22 billion per year on housing benefit

Which is around 1% of GDP

But the amount going to people renting from private landlords has decreased in recent years

Even as the number of households renting privately has increased, meaning a smaller pot is being spread thinly.

If this continues, we will see more and more people experiencing homelessness.

Housing benefit is not well loved. Labour wants to talk about Council housing and the Tories want to talk about owning your own house. But it’s an important part of our safety net.

We only have to look at the situation in America to see how bad things can get.

In the States the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program (formerly known as Section 8) helps only 2.2 million low-income households with the cost of their rent. 3 in 4 households who are eligible for the voucher do not receive it because the fund is starved of cash.

This goes a large part of the way to explaining why there are 60,000 homeless people in LA.

We must insure we do not move in this direction.

References:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/833200/benefit-expenditure-by-country-and-region-2018-19.xlsx

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/grossdomesticproductgdp/timeseries/abmi/qna

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/758610/housing-benefit-tables-2016-17.ods

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/796963/outturn-and-forecast-spring-statement-2019.xlsx

No light, no tunnel

The British public are pessimistic about the direction the country is going in and feel powerless to change things. The situation is salvageable but the barriers are significant. Overcoming them will require a clear well resourced strategy. This blog is an attempt to outline what that strategy might look like.

The Challenge

The British public are among the most pessimistic in the world. A staggering number think the country is on the wrong track and things are only getting worse.

People haven’t believed that they are able to change the direction the country is heading in for quite some time. However, these profound feelings of powerlessness are intensifying

profound feelings of powerlessness are intensifying

The vision

We should aspire to not only be a country where people are positive about the future and our collective prospects, but also one in which people feel able to influence this future.

The barriers

Many aspects of our life leave us feeling isolated and dis-empowered. Our experiences of work and leisure do little to build optimism or our ability to influence our collective future.

People spend an average of 15 hours a week watching tv

Strategy

A strategy for overcoming these barriers and realising this vision of an optimistic country with an empowered citizenry should be based on using every available opportunity to build people’s collective efficacy.

This should be the principle objective for economic policy, and there is already a lot of good work being done in this area.

In addition, public services such as schools, GPs and Local Authorities should be re-designed so that they are focused on building people’s purpose and confidence, drawing on Cottam, Lent and Wilson‘s work.

This work should be organised around a government wide shared vision (similar to previous Public Service Agreements) with responsibility ultimately sitting with a cabinet committee with a structure similar to that being pursued in New Zealand with their Executive Boards

Our leisure time is individualised and commercialised. This should be consistently challenged and institutions which show potential to engage large numbers of people in collective endeavours should be supported.

Tactics

A variety of approaches would be required to make this strategy sucessful, including:

  • Introducing radical new forms of citizen involvement, such as citizen juries, to the heart of public services.
  • Community anchors in each neighbourhood and networks based around identity should be supported to develop community platforms, as David Wilcox has suggested

The scale of the challenge is awesome. The forces acting against collective efficacy and optimism are huge. At present those who are trying to remedy this situation are hopelessly over matched. Only a strategy with ambition and resources will have a chance of success.

Give us bread but give us roses too

Labour’s thinking on changing the economy to empower communities is impressive. The work on how public services will achieve the same, is far less notable. But the seeds for a new approach are out there. Hopefully they will start to listen.

As a case in point look at this recent-ish Labour political broadcast:

On the face of it this is quite a standard anti-austerity message, with calls for more money for education, housing and regional development. But there is another message which is struggling to get out.

The critique which the video opens with isn’t just that our public services need more cash, it’s that our communities have lost their “spirit”, their “hope” and that “we lost control”

What’s Labour’s response to this? Public ownership and public investment.

Bringing “essential services” such as trains and utilities “back into public ownership” is the way Labour will “give control back to local people”.

As James Meadway, formerly advisor to the Shadow Chancellor, recently argued, one difficulty with this line of thinking is that many of the previous attempts to bring services into public ownership created distant, bureaucracies.

This is the context for the new wave of thinkers who are making waves in left wing circles by arguing for new approaches to economic policy. The Guardian recently ran a balanced and interesting long read on some of the runners and riders.

The energy that’s going into thinking about how economic policy can be used to empower communities is in striking contrast to the dearth of ideas on how public services can do the same.

There are plenty of people doing interesting work in this area. I’d recommend people look at the work of Adam Lent, Hilary Cottam, Richard Wilson, Cormac Russell & Tessy Britton.

They are all coming at different questions from different perspectives but they’ve got lots in common. For example, I think they would all agree that the institutions we currently rely on to deliver public policy (Local Authorities, Schools, CCGs and so on) are not set up to build “spirit” “hope” and “control”.

This is not to say that a Labour government that invested a lot of money in public services and brought things in-house wouldn’t achieve any good. It is to say that less tangible but no less important community level outcomes such as “hope” and “control” need a different approach.

One of the ironies of the way Brexit has played out is that we’ve seen both how powerful a message about “control” can be and how our politicians and policy makers are not yet able to offer any solutions which live up to the challenge. As the old union song has it “give us bread, but give us roses too”