Homelessness Reduction Act: ‘good intentions but it can’t fix this crisis’
Last month Islington Council gave out leaflets to members of the public asking them not to give money to rough sleepers bedded down for the night under the railway bridge on Stroud Green Road in North London. The leaflet said that many rough sleepers were battling with substance addiction and returning to sleep under the bridge lured by the generous donations that members of the public were giving them.
‘Some people who have been offered accommodation have chosen to return to Stroud Green Road. Others have refused all offers of help. One reason for this is that people are being given large sums of money by kind, caring and generous members of the public. Many of these individuals are battling with substance addiction and drug dealers exploiting these very vulnerable people by taking the money they have been given in exchange for crack cocaine and heroin.’
Islington Council leaflet
The reasons for rough sleeping are complex. The latest figures suggest homelessness is approaching epidemic levels and, in particular, the numbers of rough sleepers is increasing. According to figures published in January, almost 4,751 people slept outside on a single “snapshot” night in autumn 2017, an increase of 15% since 2016 and an increase of 169% since 2010.
Unsurprisingly, London had the highest number of rough sleepers recorded accounting for almost a quarter of all those sleeping out. The North West of England also saw a large increase in the number of rough sleepers, since the previous year: 39% which was followed by the East Midlands (23%) and Yorkshire and the Humber (20%).
The homeless charity Shelter said that the figures exposed ‘the worst pain inflicted by our housing crisis’. ‘We have failed as a society when so many people are forced to sleep rough,’ commented chief exec Polly Neate. ‘But they are not alone, the scrouge of homelessness extends far beyond the streets. Hidden away in emergency B&Bs, temporary bedsits and on friend’s sofas are hundreds of thousands of other homeless people, including families with children.’
The official figures do not show the true extent of the problem and, in paticular, the ‘hidden homeless’. These are people who are sofa surfing or bedding down on friend’s floors, sleeping on public transport or simply those who do not appear in places where official outreach counts are done.
A report carried out by Shelter at the end of last year found more than 300,000 people homeless in England and Wales which was an increase of 13,000 on the last year. Latest figures also show there are now almost 79,000 people living in temporary accommodation across England which is a massive 49% increase in the past five years.
‘Worryingly our research shows that the number of households in the worst forms of temporary accommodation is set to double by 2020 if nothing is done to address the problem,’ predicts Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis.
The Shelter study found the leading cause of homelessness was due to the loss of a tenancy in the private rented sector, with three in ten homeless households seeking housing assistance from the council for this reason.
Cuts in housing benefit and the benefit cap (the limit on the total amount of benefit a person can receive) are cited as the main reasons for the loss of such tenancies in the private rented sector. Shelter also found that a lack of affordable homes, particularly in major cities, had increased the number applying to the local authority as homeless.
The government has pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022, and eradicate it completely by 2027, by developing a national strategy to deal with the problem. This April also saw the introduction of The Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) in England which is a major shake-up of the homelessness legislation.
The aim of changes to the legislation is to ensure many more people have a right to local authority assistance to help relieve or prevent their homelessness. This will be attempted by local authorities shifting the focus for assistance to the period when a person is threatened with homelessness and diverting potential homelessness applications by securing accommodation for them elsewhere.
The new legislation will provide an opportunity to try to reduce the number of homeless people but the main homelessness charities say it will need to be combined with strategic efforts to tackle the root cause of the present homelessness crisis including rethinking welfare benefit cuts and building genuinely affordable housing.
Polly Neate says the intentions of the Homelessness Reduction Act are good but ‘it cannot fix this crisis’. ‘To do that, the government must act to build a new generation of genuinely affordable homes to rent, as well as ensuring housing benefit is fit for purpose in the short-term,’ she said.
Published June 14, 2018
Author: Tilly Rubens
Tilly is a freelance housing solicitor at Russell Cooke and also journalist writing mainly on housing issues