Homelessness is a pressing and complex issue, with causes ranging from financial struggles to mental health problems, including addiction. At the very visible end of this growing crisis, increasing numbers of people are facing biting-cold nights on the streets. Current data shows an increase of 15% from 2016 to 2017 in rough-sleeping, and the number of rough-sleepers in Britain has more than doubled since 2010. Homelessness statistics serve as a litmus test to a society’s failure – or, more pertinently, a government’s inability – to provide a holistic tranche of viable policies that seek to care and provide for this marginalised community.
In October 2016, Theresa May shifted her cabinet’s emphasis away from tackling the ‘immediate consequences of homelessness’ towards putting ‘prevention at the heart of a new approach.’ Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, put homelessness at the forefront of his inaugural policies launching the homelessness fund and pledge to end rough sleeping by 2020. Burnham’s mayoral counterpart in London, Sadiq Khan, also aspired to ‘support people from becoming homeless and help them if they do.’ Khan plans to invest £50m into accommodation for people moving from hostels to long-term homes and £9m into rough sleeping services. Tackling homelessness is an issue that clearly crosses party political divides whilst also being a party-grabbing headline winner.
Originally a private member’s bill, ‘The Homelessness Reduction Act’ was passed in April 2017 and will be implemented across England and Wales in 2018, making it the first major piece of homelessness legislation in 15 years. The Housing (Wales) Act 2014 serves as inspiration for much of the new Act’s content. For instance, the 2017 Act places higher expectations on local Councils in England, who will have a duty to prevent or relieve homelessness for all threatened by it, a significant change to a previous commitment to dealing solely with those identified as priority-need. Furthermore, local Councils will have to help someone threatened with homelessness if it is likely they will become homeless within 56 days, rather than the current 28, triggering prevention duty earlier and allowing more time to bring in early intervention and other agencies to respond to problems and help the applicant remain in the property. The British government has allocated an extra £61m from 2017-2019 to help councils meet the costs of this legislation. However, some local authorities are estimating that the changes may lead to a 50% increase in demand on their current services, a problem compounded by looming austerity measures and Brexit uncertainties which keep local Councils under enormous pressure. Even the Act’s emphasis on ‘reduction’ openly signals an ongoing crisis, although said Act does not propose measures to resolve said crisis so much as mitigate it.
Although a positive step, the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act nevertheless feels incomplete: a whole series of supportive policies are necessary for its success, most particularly regarding affordable housing. Indeed, as homelessness increases, affordable housing decreases, creating a double crisis. The charity ‘Shelter’ proposes that the solution to homelessness lies in building more affordable housing. A reliance on the private sector for housing needs further worsens the situation, as outlined by the Homeless Link, where ‘the proportion of households made homeless due to the ending of a private rented sector tenancy has almost doubled since 2011.’ Changes to welfare legislation and the roll out of Universal Credit have also exacerbated homelessness due to rent arrears. The charity ‘Centrepoint’ has seen some people waiting 10 weeks for their first payment, placing ‘tenants at risk of homelessness, as they can legally be served a notice to seek possession when rent is unpaid for eight weeks.’ The government is struggling to sustain its current homelessness strategy, and housing costs work against an effective strategy, providing compelling evidence to implement an urgent social housing policy. The government have made some reforms in the last Budget to Universal Credit, notably reducing the official six weeks wait for payments to five and injecting funding up to £1.5 billion. Further housing plans have been announced, including the important move to wipe out housing association debt in an aim to kick-start more social housing. Yet many still object that this is not enough.
The Report from the DCLG also reflects how more affordable housing is necessary: ‘In 2015-16, local authorities spent £1,148 million on homelessness services, and the single largest component of this spending was on temporary accommodation.’ The report also expresses how the overall increase in spending on homelessness services has an impact of the spending on other elements of housing services; three-quarters of the spending in 2015-16 was funded by housing benefit, of which £585m was recovered from the Department for Work & Pensions, and over the same period spending on other components of homelessness services, mainly prevention, support, and administration, fell by 9% in real terms. There is also a further un-quantified cost of homelessness to wider public services, reiterating the economic and moral importance of prevention. This includes the additional burden on public services of homeless people who experience poorer health outcomes, admissions to hospital and outpatient services, policing, and costs to the justice system.’
Housing First is an alternative approach to homelessness, founded 30 years ago in California. It involves a scheme prioritising permanent affordable housing for people with community-based supports to avoid people returning to homelessness. Housing First projects are underpinned by the principle that everybody has a right to a home, and the idea that ‘people need a home before they can begin to work on other issues,’ such as addiction and mental health problems. This approach is embraced by around 30 UK services, yet not enough councils are encouraged to take it on board.
Nevertheless, providing housing alone may not always achieve residential stability. Mental health is also strongly linked to homelessness. According to the Homeless Link national data, ‘80% of respondents reported some form of mental health issue’. The National Coalition for Homeless have said, ‘In addition to housing, supported housing programs offer services such as mental health treatment, physical health care, education and employment opportunities… and money management skills training’. Increased attention and support for mental health is fundamental. The Guardian reported that ‘about 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year’; job loss and mental health issues can greatly feed into homelessness. More mental health first aid courses and e-learning modules in businesses and institutions are needed to help identify which people need support, and when. Employees with mental health problems should receive enhanced protections according to the 2010 Equality Act, and sufficient funding is needed to ensure the NHS provides quick, convenient and high quality mental health services. Crucially, homelessness often engenders or entrenches mental health issues, creating a vicious cycle. Although lack of funding is a significant barrier to increased support for mental health and housing programmes, tackling these root causes of homelessness will prove more economical than dealing with consequences – but it also requires a long-term plan rather than short-term fixes.
Student homelessness is also rising, largely due to exorbitant university fees and expensive accommodation. The NUS recently urged universities to look at ” properly planning accommodation supply and capping rent increases to ensure students are not priced out of living in halls.’ A drastic policy change towards reducing university fees would be effective. Alongside demands to abolish tuition fees from the Labour Party, there had been hopes that the government would slash University tuition fees to £7, 500, yet disappointingly post-Budget fees remain at £9,250 – no reduction or cap. Tuition fees saddle students with debt and pressure often resulting in mental illness, financial problems and potentially homelessness, highlighting again the need for urgent change.
What do you do when a homeless person asks you to “spare some change?” Do you give some money, unsure whether that will help feed an addiction? Do you provide food and shelter? Do you go home and donate to a homeless charity? Do you feel that in giving money to charities you are preventing the government from facing their responsibilities for homelessness? Do you wonder what led to that person becoming homeless? These are all important questions to be asked – and along with the policy changes I have suggested, discourse about homelessness must be encouraged, particularly in schools, in order to promote awareness and increase public pressure for policy change. The statistics are too alarming. The British government must increase social housing, with a ‘housing first’ approach; it must increase its support for mental health care (including support for housing programmes that incorporate mental health treatment); and it must help its’ students’ well- being, namely by decreasing or eradicating university fees. The 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act is a good beginning, but it now needs support from radical social policy legislation that will allow its admirable aim to reduce homelessness to be carried out by local authorities in conjunction with vital support from non-government agencies.
Eva Barnsley is a second-year student studying International Relations at King’s College London. Her research interests include Brexit, with a focus on British welfare and education policies. She currently works in the King’s Think Tank core working group, researching issues of mental health and homelessness in the UK. She is also a mentor for Debate Mate, a global communication and leadership program, and recently worked as an intern for Janaagraha, a civic education program based in India.
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