'To tackle homelessness we must first understand the data.'
Ahead of the launch of the UK Housing Review, policy and practice officer Faye Greaves looks at what the homelessness figures can tell us about the issue.
Recently I wrote about the need for a more effective and robust system for understanding the extent of rough sleeping in England. Unlike those statistics, the statutory homelessness figures released quarterly by DCLG, are more detailed and based on actual cases (not estimates), but this cannot excuse them from criticism.
Focusing on the ‘statutory homeless’ cases – the ones where councils owed a full re-housing duty – the issue of non-statutory homelessness isn’t given the attention it deserves. The government figures show a gradually rising trend in statutory homelessness since 2010 but nowhere near as high as in 2003 – a point consistently highlighted by DCLG. It doesn’t necessarily follow though, that homelessness is less than half the problem. This small but significant point was made recently in yet another warning from the UK Statistics Authority to DCLG on their use of the official statistics. They were reminded of a prior warning in late 2015 that reporting the statutory homelessness statistics without providing the broader context was “potentially misleading”.
So it was reassuring to read the UK Housing Review chapter on homelessness in this year’s publication. Written by ISPHERE’s Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick at Herriot Watt University, its representation of the data is refreshing. The official figures are presented alongside alternative evidence sources to provide a well balanced take on homelessness in the UK.
Here are a few things that stood out:
• Marked contrasts between different parts of the UK are evident (see chart below). This is mainly a result of changes in each nation’s homelessness law as well as changes to the emerging culture in the provision of statutory homelessness services. Scotland and Wales have both seen ‘sharp falls’ in statutory homelessness applications and acceptances since their homelessness law diverged from the rest of the UK; with Scotland abolishing ‘priority need’ and Wales’ creation of a wider duty to prevent/ alleviate homelessness. Interestingly, in Northern Ireland acceptances have risen over the past three years but the total number of applications hasn’t and this is attributed to its more frequent use of the homelessness route to assist older people who are unable to remain in their family home.
• Use of the private rented sector (PRS) to prevent homelessness in England has dropped by 30 per cent since 2009/10 and use of the PRS to discharge statutory duties accounted for just four per cent of all cases leaving temporary accommodation in 2015/16. This is likely a result of an increasingly inaccessible PRS for people who rely on some form of welfare assistance to help pay their rent.
At the same time, loss of a tenancy in the PRS accounts for a vast proportion of total accepted households, almost quadrupling over the last six years - 11 per cent in 2009/10 to 31 per cent in 2015/16. These two points clearly reflect something we’ve been highlighting for some time, that it’s difficult to see how the PRS can offer scalable solution to homelessness in its present form.
• Local context is important so we mustn’t allow the national picture to distort our understanding of what is happening at a more regional level. In England, while there has been a marked national increase in statutory homelessness between 2009/10 and 2015/16, regional trends have been ‘strongly contrasting’. For example, “the 2015/16 figure for the North of England remained six per cent lower that the 2009/10 national low point”, while London saw figures more than double over the same period.
There’s also some really useful commentary on access to housing for young people, the contrasting temporary accommodation picture across the UK, the rise in rough sleeping and the impact of cuts to housing support services and housing more generally.
What strikes me the most after taking in what the chapter on homelessness has to say, is that while we can be in no doubt that homelessness is rising and there are wider structural issues and local authority funding challenges to address, mechanisms to record and report data about homelessness levels must be robust and they absolutely must provide an honest reflection of the problem.
The current system prevents us from developing a genuine understanding of the homelessness problem in England because too many people fail to make it onto statutory records because they don’t meet the ‘full housing duty’ criteria. This ‘hidden’ homelessness will remain hidden as long as the current system allows it.
Many would agree that evidence based policy development is a good thing. To get things right, we require a better understanding of what might be going wrong in the first place. With the Homelessness Reduction Bill on the horizon and with government commitment to reforming homelessness data in the recent housing White Paper I am optimistic for the future – improving our understanding of the problem is our biggest asset when developing ways to tackle it. In the meantime though, we must take care when communicating what the current data is telling us.
Faye Greaves is a policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing.
The UK Housing Review is the UK's biggest annual compilation of housing data, featuring exclusive analysis. It will be available on our bookshop from March 7. To reserve your copy email our team with your details.