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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

‘The message is stark – homelessness needs our urgent, collective attention’

10/08/2017


Rough sleeping is forecasted to jump by 76 per cent in the next 10 years according to a new report from Crisis. CIH policy and practice officer Faye Greaves says the time for action is now.

The latest research from Crisis really brings home the scale of our homelessness problem. The figures are stark - the report estimates that at any one time in 2016 across Britain:

  • 9,100 people were sleeping rough
  • 68,300 households were sofa surfing
  • 9,300 households were living in unsuitable temporary accommodation
  • 37,200 households were living in hostels
  • 26,000 households were living in other circumstances, including:
    • 8,900 households sleeping in tents, cars or on public transport
    • 12,100 households living in squats
    • 5,000 households in women’s refuges or winter night shelters

It is also very clear that things are only going to get worse. The analysis, conducted for Crisis by Heriot-Watt University, warns that if current policies continue unchanged, the most acute forms of homelessness are likely to keep rising, with overall numbers estimated to increase by more than a quarter in the coming decade and households in unsuitable temporary accommodation set to nearly double.

While the figures are scary, they sadly won’t come as a surprise to many of us – homelessness has been steadily rising in all its forms since 2010, partly because of the pressures on the housing market but also some of the welfare changes that have come into force over the past few years. The latest official figures show overall supply of ‘affordable’ homes has fallen to 24-year low and we’re building the lowest number of homes for social rent since records began. As we have said before, making housing more affordable means building more homes of all types – for ownership, shared ownership, private rent and social rent. We believe more investment is urgently needed in genuinely affordable homes to rent. One of the new government’s priorities should be rebalancing the housing budget – affordable housing currently accounts for just 21 per cent of total direct investment.

Meanwhile the private rented sector is becoming increasingly inaccessible - rents are rising while incomes simply aren’t keeping pace. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the number of private renters living in poverty has almost doubled in a decade, because they’re handing over more and more of their income to cover the rent. For people who receive Local Housing Allowance (LHA – housing benefit for people living in the private rented sector), there is a growing gap between LHA rates and market rents. And due to the freeze on rates for the next four years, actual rent levels are fast moving even further away from the amount people are entitled to to help cover their housing costs. The LHA cap is due to be extended to social housing from April 2019 and is likely to have a big impact on single people aged under 35 – already a very marginalised group when it comes to access to affordable housing. The change means that single under 35s with no children will only be eligible for housing benefit at the ‘shared accommodation’ rate, based on the cost of renting a room in a shared house or flat locally (as is already the case with LHA). There is a real risk that they will be locked out of both the private and social rented sectors as a result, which is why we are encouraging social landlords to consider how they might develop shared housing options.

We have yet to see the full impact of the reduced benefit cap, but as our chief executive Terrie Alafat warned last week, we fear it could make homelessness even worse. Last week’s figures showed that almost half of the households affected by the reduced cap are losing more than £50 a week, which is likely to make it tough for people to afford their bills, rent and potentially even basic necessities.

The continued uncertainty over the future funding of supported housing is another big concern. We know that supported accommodation features significantly in council efforts to prevent and relieve homelessness – almost 10 per cent of all prevention and relief cases last year involved a successful placement into supported accommodation. What happens if this isn’t an option?

The Crisis report makes it clear that we need a range of different policies working together if we want to stop its projections becoming reality. Based on Heriot-Watt’s economic modelling, a 60 per cent increase in new housing could reduce levels of homelessness by 19 per cent by 2036, while increased prevention work could reduce levels by 34 per cent over the same period.

In England, the new Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 (inspired by the Welsh model) will give councils a great opportunity to offer more meaningful help – and more quickly – to more people as it presents new legal rights to people less likely to get help under the current system. But legislation on its own won’t be enough. The government must ensure that councils have the resources they need to deliver their new obligations.

In Wales, the Welsh Government recently reported on the progress of its prevention framework. The prevention stats were encouraging, but the report also highlighted the challenges of sustaining these kind of results. As Shelter Cymru warned: “Prevention can be extremely challenging, due to a fatal combination of welfare reform, benefit cap, universal credit and a large number of private landlords either leaving the market or refusing to take on benefit claimants as tenants.”

Fundamentally, homelessness prevention needs to be structural and systemic. Heriot-Watt’s Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick has previously highlighted how “systemically disadvantaged groups” are more likely to become homeless –the university’s research “indicates that childhood poverty is the most powerful predictor of homelessness in young adulthood”. She adds: “Any serious debate about homelessness policy needs to focus on this deeply unfair distribution of risks rather than trite homilies about “complexity” which depoliticise what is, fundamentally, a structural problem”.

We cannot afford to ignore the scale of our homelessness problem – it requires our urgent, collective attention. Today’s report is a stark warning of the likely outcome if we don’t start taking action now. History tells us that we can reduce or even eliminate homelessness but it does require a co-ordinated approach – that means government investment, funding for affordable housing and a concerted effort across the housing and homelessness sectors.


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