20 Apr 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in quick and radical responses to homelessness policy across the whole of the UK. The evidence in this year’s UK Housing Review shows what can be done to address homelessness if the political will is there, but it also highlights the divergence across Great Britain of progress against ending homelessness for good. We know that homelessness is linked to housing supply and the last year, perhaps more than any event in our history, has really emphasised the importance of home to many of us. But as we ease out of lockdown again, the policies and funding in place pre-COVID will have a long-term effect on how many people helped through the emergency measures will have access to somewhere safe, stable and affordable to live post-pandemic.
What has happened to levels of homelessness across GB?
Thanks to temporary protective measures including the pause on evictions, raising the Local Housing Allowance (LHA), the furlough scheme and ‘Everyone In’ or equivalent, most measures of statutory homelessness have seen no immediate increase over the past 12 months.
In England levels of ‘core homelessness’ (including people sleeping on our streets, sofa-surfing or being stuck in unsuitable temporary accommodation) decreased from 220,000 in 2019 to around 200,000 in 2020. Research by Crisis and Centre for Housing Evidence found that local authorities and homelessness services were in agreement that these protective measures have been very important in preventing and minimising homelessness.
While the figures so far show no immediate rise in homelessness, there has continued to be a new ‘flow’ of people pushed into homelessness since the pandemic started. These are more likely to be people who are hidden such as sofa surfers (including noted increases in young people in some areas) or people without recourse to public funds. There have, however, been significant increases in the use of temporary accommodation across the whole of GB in the first half of 2020.
Even before coronavirus hit, temporary accommodation placements in England were already on track to top 100,000 by 2021. We have seen a surge in temporary accommodation (namely B&B hotel) placements among single people, mainly as a result of the emergency measures to protect people at risk of rough sleeping during the pandemic. As of 30th September, 93,490 households were in temporary accommodation including over 10,000 in B&B hotels.
In Wales, at the start of lockdown we saw a 68 per cent increase in placements in B&B accommodation as a result of the lockdown measures. Latest figures show 5,952 individuals were in temporary accommodation, an increase of over 400 on the month before.
Scotland’s temporary accommodation placements have remained in the range of 10 - 11,000 over the last decade. However, one week into lockdown the number of placements were 6 per cent higher than a year earlier and latest figures show there were 14,151 households in in temporary accommodation - a 24 per cent rise on the same period last year (including a 99% rise of B&B use).
Looking ahead to a housing led response to homelessness
While the quick use of emergency and temporary accommodation has undoubtedly saved lives, it does not equate to ending homelessness. We have been over reliant on short-term costly accommodation to meet the high demand of people having nowhere else to go.
The UK Housing Review shows that approaches to move-on accommodation in Wales and Scotland have been heavily influenced by pre-Covid policy shifts towards rapid-rehousing responses to homelessness. In Scotland, this includes a significant programme of Housing First and in Wales £50 million of capital and revenue funding has been committed to rehouse people accommodated during the pandemic. In contrast in England, while funding has been made available there is concern about the transitional and short term nature of the move-on accommodation being provided.
We cannot ignore the wider housing context. This year’s report shows that only 11 per cent of new ‘affordable’ homes built in England were at genuinely affordable social rents, compared with nearly 70 per cent in Scotland and over 80 per cent in Wales. In contrast to England’s net loss, Scotland’s social rented stock has grown by 25,000 over the last five years. There is, and will continue to be, a new flow of people pushed into homelessness. The review makes clear that building social rented homes addresses the most urgent housing needs and will ensure we shift our focus from managing homelessness to ending it.
Previous moments of national crisis have spurred reforms, driven by government, that changed society forever and for the better. A truly impactful and lasting post-pandemic recovery has to mean a safe and secure home for all.