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.
Finally, we know that there is a growing body of promising practice around supporting people to develop sustaining relationships, for example, The Relationship Project, Every One Every Day and Civic Square.
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.
All data from https://share.homelessnessimpact.org/
Compared to other large rich countries, the UK is one of the cheapest countries in which to own a house, and one of the most expensive to rent a house
Compared to other large rich countries, the UK is one of the most expensive to rent a house if you are on middle or low income
Households in the UK on middle incomes are much more likely to be overcrowded than in other large rich countries
- The UK has a lot more social housing than many other rich countries, far more than US, Japan or Germany.
- The UK spends significantly more public money on housing benefit than other rich countries
- People in the UK are far less likely to be satisfied with the quality and affordability of their housing than those in other rich countries.
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.
We can end rough sleeping within the next five year. We cannot wait for the constructions of a new generation of social housing to be built before we do so, and we do not need to wait. Building social housing is only part of the answer to ending rough sleeping.
It is possible to end rough sleeping without greatly increasing social housing and we cannot wait for new social housing to be built before we end rough sleeping.
As the chart below shows, New Labour made significant progress in reducing the number of people sleeping rough in England.
At the same time that there was a decline in the number of social housing units.
This was achieved through a series of measures including the Rough Sleepers Unit, and Supporting People funding.
The picture was reversed following the change of government in 2010. Under the coalition and then Conservative governments the number of people sleeping rough has increased dramatically.
This has happened at the same time as the number of social housing units has remained stable.
From this it’s clear that it’s possible to reduce the number of people sleeping rough without a programme to build significant amounts of social housing. This can be done by increasing social security payments so that they cover rent and having well resources and incentivised homelessness prevention and outreach teams.
It takes several years to build new social housing units (including land assembly and planning permission). We should not wait that long to end rough sleeping and we do not have to wait.
There is too much focus on how to build new social housing and not enough on how social housing can improve the lives of tenants, many of whom face enormous challenges.
Labour’s 2019 housing manifesto has three columns of text on social housing. Two and a half of these columns are about building new units, detailing how the party would build a million new homes over 10 years.
What would Labour’s approach be for the 4m households in England that currently rent from the council or a housing association? Decent homes 2 (i.e. investment in repairs and maintenance) and more of a role for tenants in governance. Both laudable initiatives but neither of which will be enough to overcome the substantial challenges that are faced by many social housing tenants.
- On average, private renters are more satisfied with their accommodation than people who rent from the council or housing associations
- Social renters pay a higher percentage of their income in rents than people that own their homes pay for their mortgage
- Social renters are very likely to have on savings
- Social renters are likely to have a lower sense of wellbeing and optimism about the future
The promise of social housing is that it can provide people with safe, secure, affordable housing provided by accountable organisations that have their tenant’s best interests at heart. It’s fair to say that in many cases that promise is not being realised.