Two reports out this month and next present an overview of homelessness in England and allow judgements to be made on whether or not current policies are working.
The Homeless Monitor: England, published by Crisis, takes the official homelessness statistics as its starting point: rough sleeping has been increasing (albeit more slowly of late), while homelessness acceptances – which had started to increase after 2009 – have levelled off and even fallen slightly. But as the monitor says, official statistics are far from telling the full story. Increasingly, potentially homeless households don’t show up in the official figures as they are dealt with under the ‘preventative’ methods introduced by the last government.
Cases dealt with this way, outside the statutory system, have grown by well over one third since 2010. Out of every three potential homelessness cases, two are now dealt with through these informal procedures. This is, of course, potentially no bad thing, but does it lead to satisfactory outcomes for those deterred from exercising their legal rights? The Monitor points out that a growing proportion of such cases lead to the household staying put in their existing accommodation: the difficulty is in knowing to what extent this is the equivalent of putting a sticking plaster on a deep wound, which may soon reopen. As the other forthcoming report, CIH’s UK Housing Review 2015, will point out, less than half of prevention work leads to the household moving (usually to somewhere in the private rented sector), and this proportion is declining.
Has the decline in homelessness now compared with a decade ago been partly a result of prevention work deterring people from applying? This remains an open question in England, although Crisis certainly believes the evidence points to it being a factor. The Review notes that in Scotland this is openly admitted, with the Scottish Housing Regulator saying it is ‘likely’ that there is an under-reporting of homelessness.
Another important trend covered in both reports is the increasing reliance placed on the private sector to resolve homelessness, whether as permanent or as temporary accommodation. The Monitor makes clear that this is a considerable source of concern, not least because the changes in welfare benefits mean that in high pressure areas the private rented sector may not be affordable. One consequence has been the rapid growth in ‘out-of-area’ placements. In early 2010, it involved only 11% of homelessness cases, but by September 2014 the proportion had grown to 25%. Nearly all of these placements were by London authorities, and at least a proportion are to places very far from being within commuting range of the capital.
Crisis calls this a ‘London story’ in which the overall housing market pressures combine with the coalition government’s welfare reforms to create especially severe challenges. In some inner London boroughs, numbers of benefit claimants have fallen by a third, since limits on local housing allowances and the overall benefit caps have made many inner London lettings unaffordable to those on benefits. The combined circumstances have made it ‘very difficult’ for London boroughs to meet their statutory duties and are even leading to the ‘mass cleansing’ of benefit recipients from parts of central London.
Another factor in a complex equation is the actions of private landlords themselves. Almost three-quarters of the recent increase in statutory homelessness comes from the sharply rising numbers leaving assured shorthold tenancies – up by over 9,000 (200%) in four years. In London, the increase is even starker. While the causes are not precisely known, the Monitor believes they are very likely related to the combined effects of welfare reform and of rising rents. In other words, it is in landlords’ interests to evict current tenants and find (more profitable) new ones.
The picture painted by both reports is of a perfect storm formed by the increasing reliance on the private sector to resolve homelessness cases and the private sector’s increasing propensity to add to them. While it might be easy to blame private landlords in this situation, both central and local government must share the responsibility. Two things are certain. One is that increasing reliance on the private sector isn’t a long-term solution and the sings of this are already becoming obvious. The second is that, whoever is to blame, it is certainly not the increasing numbers of homeless households who are finding a permanent solution to their housing needs ever more difficult to obtain, especially in London.
Original post and comments: Chartered Institute of Housing