'Home' in Newcastle by  Craig Rodway (c) some rights reserved.
‘Home’ pictured in Newcastle by Craig Rodway (c) some rights reserved.

For Newcastle see: https://newcastleareas.wordpress.com/homelessness/homelessness-in-newcastle/

What do we mean by homeless?

Some people who live in any city have no fixed abode.  We tend to think of homeless people as those sleeping rough on the streets, but there are far more ‘hidden homeless’ people staying in temporary or unsuitable accommodation.  Some are staying with friends temporarily (‘sofa surfing’), sleeping at a hostel or in a bed and breakfast, living in squats or even bunking down in a shed.  It was estimated in December 2018 by Crisis that more than 24,000 people in Britain would spend Christmas sleeping rough – many of them hidden homeless sleeping in vehicles or public transport or tents [The Guardian Dec 14 2018].  Rough sleeper figures don’t include people in temporary accommodation such as  hostels, shelters or campsites.

Many of those who are homeless have complex social and health needs.  Accurate figures can be difficult to get. Most official statistics on homelessness relate to the statutorily homeless ( i.e. those meeting specific legal criteria).  UK officials acknowledge figures for homelessness and rough sleeping statistics have not been robust or accurate. The Office of National Statistics is looking at ways what they term ‘non-household’ people can be counted and included to improve measures such as living standards and poverty [ONS working paper 2018].

However, it is recognised homelessness in general has been on the rise and the numbers sleeping rough are growing with one newspaper report stating in 2016 the total doing so had more than doubled after 2010 (The Observer, Dec 4 2016).  The National Audit Office stated in relation to homelessness in England 2010-17 there had been a 60% rise in households living in temporary accommodation and a rise of 134% in rough sleepers [BBC News 13 Sep 2017].  Rough sleeping was estimated to have risen in England 15% autumn 2016 compared to 2017 [Government report Jan 2018].

“Rough sleeping in England has increased for the seventh consecutive year, official figures show, and charities say even this steep rise fails to capture the true level of street homelessness.” The Guardian 25th Jan 2018

It should be noted that the way homelessness is dealt with differs in the devolved nations; the housing legislation is different and statistics gathered not be directly comparable. Scotland has adopted a ‘housing options’ policy and Wales introduced prevention based legislation in 2014; neither use ‘priority need’ criteria (Homelessness  Monitor reports).  The changes in Wales have been shown to have a positive impact [JRF Homelessness Monitor Wales Sep 2017]. However the use of priority need criteria has been challenged in England by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and a switch to an emphasis on prevention implemented in England from April 2018.  This means the statistics collected change, as research group Isphere have pointed out:

“…in England until this year, the homelessness system only applied to ‘priority need’ households (primarily families with children), so in effect the administrative records of homelessness omitted most of the, numerically much larger, group of single homeless people.”  [ISphere Dec 15 2018]

Homelessness in England – Government action

“A ‘main homelessness duty’ is owed where the authority is satisfied that the applicant is eligible for assistance, unintentionally homeless and falls within a specified priority need group. Such statutorily homeless households are referred to as ‘acceptances’.  The ‘priority need groups’ include households with dependent children or a pregnant woman and people who are vulnerable in some way…” Government guidance on homelessness data for England (7 February 2013 updated 3 April 2018)

“There is a big group of people who don’t have a place to live but are not considered vulnerable enough in legal terms to qualify for housing.  Single adults with no children who don’t have any of the specific additional vulnerabilities listed… will generally not be entitled to housing if they become homeless.  In the year ending September 2017, 113,200 households in England applied to their councils for housing assistance because they said they were homeless.  Of those, there were almost 28,360 English households that councils agreed were homeless but said they did not have a duty to provide with housing.” BBC news report December 21st 2017

The Government at Westminster recognised homelessness in England as a growing problem and announced an initiative in October 2016 to help prevent people becoming homeless.  A network of Homelessness Prevention Trailblazer areas was set up to develop innovative approaches to prevent homelessness (a £50m fund); early adopters were Greater Manchester, Newcastle and Southwark councils (HM Govt Homelessness Prevention Programme 21 Dec 2016).

Since then Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, introduced by Conservative MP Bob Blackman as a private member’s bill, has been passed with government backing [BBC News March 20 2017;  Parliament page].  The Act placed a new duty on local authorities in England to assist people threatened with homelessness within 56 days and to assess, prevent and relieve homelessness for all eligible applicants including single homeless people (from April 2018). In short, no one should be turned away [Crisis Bill in a nutshell pdf].  It builds on measures introduced in Wales and elsewhere which seek to prevent eviction [policy fact sheet 1(pdf)].

“In a nutshell, the Homelessness Reduction Bill transforms the help councils are expected to provide to homeless people.” Alice Ashworth, Crisis blog 23 March 2017

Critics have described it as ‘a small step in the right direction’ but have pointed out adequate funding is required [Dawn Foster, The Guardian 27 Jan 2017].  Without funding Shelter say there could be unintended  ‘gate-keeping’ of services and repeat homelessness (Shelter briefing on the Bill).

Lord Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association – which represents England’s councils, said: “It is clear that legislative change alone will not resolve homelessness. It is crucial that the government recognise and address the wider factors that are increasing homelessness, such as the lack of affordable housing and welfare reforms. Without this, the bill will struggle to achieve its aim of reducing homelessness.  Councils need powers and funding to address the widening gap between incomes and rents, resume their historic role as a major builder of new affordable homes and join up all local services – such as health, justice and skills. This is the only way to deliver our collective ambition to end homelessness.” [As reported by BBC News March 20 2017]

In August 2018 the government published a £100m Rough Sleeping Strategy to tackle rough sleeping in England, and Housing Secretary James Brokenshire said the government would make homelessness “a thing of the past” and eliminate rough sleeping by 2027.  But Brokenshire later admitted there was no new money – the £100 million was made of money already allocated to homelessness or “reprioritised” from existing budgets [BBC News August 13 2018].

The reality?

In reality Government policies seem to be contributing to a rise in homelessness, including rough sleeping, because of the way the new Universal Credit welfare system operates with many private landlords refusing to take tenants on benefits  [Crisis on the benefits system].

‘Around 80% of people moved on to universal credit are in arrears before receiving the payment, which takes up to eight weeks to come through. “What this means in practice is that some people can’t pay their rent and lose accommodation and they stay homeless for longer because they are seen as risky by landlords,” Tidnam said.’  Bill Tidnam  chief executive of Thames Reach, which runs hostels in London, quoted in The Observer, Oct 28 2018.

The statistics

“There is no shadow of a doubt that homelessness escalated during the last Parliament and escalated considerably.” England 2016 Homelessness Monitor report p77

For its 50th anniversary, the charity Shelter put together a statistics from official sources to give a total for actual homelessness in England of 254,514 (BBC Dec 1st 2016).  The figure includes rough sleepers, people in temporary accommodation, people housed in hostels and those waiting to be housed by council social services departments.

The number of applicants local authorities in England decided were eligible as homeless and in priority need peaked in 2003 and had been falling until the financial crisis of 2008-10; during 2010-17 the trend has been slowly upwards with the number in temporary accommodation rising as the England Homelessness Monitor reports show.

“At just over 59,000, annual homelessness acceptances were some 19,000 higher across England in 2016/17 than in 2009/10. With a rise of 2 per cent over the past year, acceptances now stand 48 per cent above their 2009/10 low point. However, administrative changes mean that these official statistics understate the true increase in ‘homelessness expressed demand’ over recent years..” 2018 Housing Monitor report

The most common reason many applicants gave for becoming homeless was the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy (private rented sector).  The reason for the rise in homelessness can be linked to a combination of factors including the economic downturn and cuts to local authority budgets.  However, in recent Homelessness Monitor reports, part-funded by Crisis, the view is put forward that changes to welfare benefit payments and a weakening of the safety net during 2010-16 had a much more direct impact on homelessness than economic conditions (England Homelessness Monitor reports).

The changes to government housing benefit rules, the so-called bedroom tax, have meant people under-occupying accommodation are seeking smaller homes, putting increased pressure on the already limited supply in the social housing sector.  It is thought this has reduced the amount of one-bedroom social rented accommodation available for single homeless people.

In September 2017 the National Audit Office stated that homelessness of all kinds has increased ‘significantly’ over the previous six years. In England, 2010-2017, there had been a 134% rise in the number of rise in rough sleepers and a 60% rise in households living in temporary accommodation.  Local authorities in England spent £1.15bn on  homelessness services during 2015-16.

“Homelessness in all its forms has significantly increased in recent years, driven by several factors. Despite this, government has not evaluated the impact of its reforms…  It is difficult to understand why the Department persisted with its light touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem. Its recent performance in reducing homelessness therefore cannot be considered value for money.”  Amyas Morse, National Audit Office, 13 September 2017

The Homelessness Monitor report for England noted an upward trend in the number of people sleeping rough between 2010-15 (summary report Jan 2016).  It is thought this started to rise before major government cuts were implemented and increased significantly in 2014-15. In London many of these people are foreign nationals and there has been a sharp rise in those from central and Eastern Europe.

“Most key informants who commented in 2013 suggested that one probable explanation for this upward trend in rough sleeping was a weakening in the support available to the most vulnerable single homeless people…” England 2013 Homelessness Monitor report p31

Local authorities “…report far greater difficulties in providing ‘meaningful help’ to single homeless people than they do to families with children. Moreover, only six per cent of authorities report being able to provide an ‘excellent’ homelessness  prevention service for single person households, compared with 21 per cent who feel that they are able to offer such a service for families with children.” England 2016 Homelessness Monitor report p54

Regional contrasts in the official numbers of  homeless households have become more marked reflecting the existence of housing supply extremes between hotspots with rising rents and areas which are more economically depressed.  Shelter provided data, which has been mapped for England, showing that in 2016 one person in 51 in London was homeless, one in 63 in Luton and one in 116 in Birmingham (map BBC Dec 1st 2016).  In Tyneside the ratios were much more favourable, but South Tyneside was identified as a local black spot (Shields Gazette 1st Dec 2016).

“While numbers have risen only 8% in the North over the past three years, the comparable figures for the South of England and for London are 44% and 61%,
respectively.” England 2013 Homelessness Monitor report p36

“Generally, 2014/15 saw a perpetuation of previous trends, with London and the South diverging further from the Midlands and the North.” England 2016 Homelessness Monitor report p58

An increasing proportion of those made homeless are from the private rented sector while homelessness acceptances resulting from mortgage repossession have remained at a more constant level.

In England tenants can be evicted without private landlords having to give a reason (Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988).  The Scottish government has protected private tenants by restricting no-fault evictions and there is an active campaign to abolish section 21 in England [The Observer August 18 2018].

Newcastle see: https://newcastleareas.wordpress.com/homelessness/homelessness-in-newcastle/

Last edited 15th December 2018.

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