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We can’t end homelessness without sweeping legal reform

The four nations of the UK have some of the most generous legal entitlements for people facing homelessness. The legacy of Cathy Come Home is the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977. Since then more than four million households have been helped into alternative housing because they qualify for this almost unique addition to a western welfare state.

Over the years, this settlement has been changed and expanded. Devolved government in Scotland and Wales has charged progress with the former abolishing the idea of non-priority homelessness between 2003 and 2012, and the latter legislating for homelessness prevention in 2014. The landmark Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) introduced prevention formally into law in a similar way in England.

This seemingly progressive settlement hides a multitude of sins. Under the surface it is largely a battleground between homeless ‘applicants’, and local councils who are charged with using the legalistic framework as a rationing tool for scarce housing stock and social support.

Should you find yourself homeless in 21st century Britain here is your challenge:

Are you someone with the right immigration status? Living and working in the UK for years, paying taxes for decades even, is not a guarantee, especially if the state tells you that you have ‘no recourse to public funds’.

Are you at fault for your own homelessness? This bizarre concept of ‘intentionality’ exists to stop the mythical scrounging masses from claiming falsely, but if for example you have rent arears, as thousands do through no fault of their own, then bad luck.

Are you from the local council area you are applying to? Do you have uninterrupted proof over a period of years? If not, you’re out.

Are you in one of the stated ‘priority need’ groups? This one has been seen off in Scotland, but everywhere else you have to have dependent children or qualify under one of the other limited descriptions. If your situation isn’t on the list, then your last shot at this one is appealing to the council to deem you in some way ‘vulnerable’.

Let’s say you haven’t fallen foul of one or more of these – and here is the real kicker – what if the council has nowhere to offer you anyway?!

The system is quixotic. Cash and housing strapped councils are spending their time fighting off legal challenges that their decisions were unlawful. People are sent hundreds of miles to live in squalor because local social housing has been converted or sold, or because the private rental market is too expensive. Private consultants scurry about the system, offering new innovations in gatekeeping it from applicants to grateful housing officers.

The pandemic has brought this murky system into the light. When Louise Casey sent her now famous ‘Everyone In’ email to English councils at the end of March, she basically told them to forget the last 43 years of litigious argument. The instruction on a Wednesday evening to get everyone off the street by the weekend was an instruction to do the right thing and ignore the rules. And in Scotland and Wales, the pandemic responses went even further, with councils given more generous funding settlements and directives from ministers about the public health emergency.

These efforts have been the exception that proves an important rule – that if you offer legal routes out of homelessness for some, you make it inevitable for others.  

For a few weeks the numbers on the street went dramatically down, and gave the public a glimpse of a future without rough sleeping. Politicians have seen that decisive intervention can have dramatic and positive results. And as an unnamed Conservative politician said in the Times last week: ‘My worry is that we’ve shown it is possible to get everyone off the streets during the Covid crisis so if homelessness goes up now people will know it’s as a consequence of government’s actions.’

So, what now? How should we build on the extraordinary efforts of the last six months? And how do we apply the short-term successes of reductions in rough sleeping to the wider homelessness response?

Our first principle should be to move from incomplete legal entitlements, to a universal model of guarantee that anyone facing homelessness is helped to avoid or quickly resolve it. The current model is cruel in its legally sanctioned denial of help to thousands every year. But it also labels people. You are ‘the homeless’, you should be grateful for what you get, and if you get nothing, soon the labels keep coming: single homeless, entrenched, complex, service-resistant, etc.

Let’s abolish the legal tests that create and sustain homelessness.

Second, the Everyone In initiative was a fleeting glimpse of assertive state action on homelessness in England. Louise Casey has come and now gone again, officially moving on in late July, leaving the UK government rudderless once again. Devolving the problem to the myriad responses of each local council is fundamentally flawed and we know all too well what that leads to – with every measure of homelessness in England going up in the last ‘decade of disaster’, under the cloak of decentralised but declining resources.

Governments in Scotland and Wales have recently begun an overhaul of their homelessness systems. This rediscovery of assertiveness and vision is desperately needed in England too, and a blueprint is written in the Crisis plan for ending homelessness. There are solutions ready and waiting, from scaling up Housing First, to the case for social housing at scale, PRS reform, etc. And the good news is that financially these reforms easily pay for themselves over a 10-year period.

The current government target of ending rough sleeping by the end of the parliament is the first of its kind. Rough sleeping is of course the most damaging for of homelessness. But in order to reach this goal, we need a consensus across all political parties on wider basis.

Since 1977 the legal system has designed in homelessness. This must be reversed, and replaced with a universal guarantee of housing support, and then backed by an assertive government strategy to make homelessness in all its guises a thing of the past.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Matthew Downie</span></strong>
Matthew Downie

Director of Policy and External Affairs, Crisis. Matt, who joined Crisis in 2014, played a leading role in the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act – one of the biggest reforms to homelessness legislation in England in a generation – as well as the publication of ‘Everybody In: How to end homelessness in Great Britain’, a landmark body of work showing how homelessness can be ended for good. He was awarded an MBE for his services to tackling homelessness in June 2019.

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Time is running out for renters

At the eleventh hour, late on a Friday afternoon, the Government finally decided to stop ploughing ahead with reopening eviction cases in the courts on 24 August.

This news came as a relief to the many thousands of renters struggling to pay their rent due to the economic shock of Covid-19. However, a stay on evictions keep renters safe for now but it is just a sticking plaster. It is time the Government dealt with root cause and took action to end the rent debt crisis.

Even before the pandemic hit, two million households in the private rented sector were struggling to pay their rent – paying a staggering 40% of their income to private landlords on average. 

Already stretched thin and with no savings to fall back on, private renters now find themselves without work or at risk of losing their job. 

Having to rely on the welfare system, many for the first time, renters wait anxiously for money to arrive and are devasted when the housing allowance, even with the recent Government increase, nowhere near covers the rent they owe.

New research by Generation Rent found that just 12% of those who applied for benefits after lockdown have been able to cover their rent – meaning hundreds and thousands of renters have been forced to rely solely on their landlord’s goodwill.

With unemployment rising, the furlough scheme coming to an end, and an endless wait for an inadequate benefit payment, thousands of renters are at serious risk of losing their homes.

Renters like Elizabeth, Tim, Roy, Laura and Chrissie:

Elizabeth: ‘Our three-year contract is up. We informed our landlady we weren’t able to pay full due to cuts in our salaries due to Covid19. The landlady agreed – then the landlady gave us Section 21 eviction notice.’

Tim: ‘Covid 19 has meant that income has dried up. My landlord wouldn’t or hasn’t taken the three month mortgage payment holiday. I am 3+ months behind with my rent and frightened about receiving a Section 8 eviction notice from my landlord.’

Roy: ‘My landlord has been texting me once a month since this (pandemic) started telling me I’m going to be “out on my ear” if I don’t pay, trying to increase the rent while my income has halved and my savings are dwindling, I’m terrified for my children’s future.’

Laura: ‘I’ve been furloughed and the money hasn’t been coming in until the middle of the month so I’ve been unable to pay the rent on time. I haven’t slept I’ve been ill anxiety and depression levels have gone up.’

Chrissie: ‘We explained that we hadn’t been able to work for 3 months and we’ve rented for just under 30 years. The landlords agent said ‘well you know what to do, give the keys back if you can’t pay’. We’re not eligible for benefits as we own a retirement property abroad. We are both over 60.’

These stories break my heart. Sadly, Elizabeth, Tim, Roy, Laura and Chrissie are not alone. Their stories are just a snapshot of the renter experience Generation Rent hears every day.

Many have lived in their properties for years. They have children at local schools but now find themselves priced out of the area they call home. Some are behind with rent and others haven’t even been given a reason; their landlord has simply issued a ‘no fault’ eviction notice and asked them to leave.

Our research, carried out just a few weeks ago, has shown 1 in 5 private renters who has struggled to pay rent during the pandemic has already been told to move out, been given a rent increase or been threatened with eviction. Nearly half of struggling tenants were found to be already searching for a new home, with 59 per cent unable to find one they can afford or a landlord who will accept them – meaning homelessness will be the only option for renters as they find themselves with nowhere else to go.

Time is running out for renters.

In March, Robert Jenrick promised to keep renters hit by Covid-29 in their homes. He has to deliver on this promise. He has to put in place a permanent solution to alleviate the coronavirus rent debt crisis being faced by hundreds of thousands of renters. 

With Parliament back from the summer recess, Generation Rent are more determined than ever to help renters saddled with rent debt. 

That’s why we’re campaigning for an end to the rent debt crisis through lifting the benefit cap and increasing benefits to cover average rents, no rent increases until March 2021, and make grants available to cover the rent of the most financially vulnerable through our Coronavirus Home Retention Scheme.

We want to see an end to coronavirus evictions through emergency legislation to prevent ‘no fault’ evictions and evictions for rent arrears. This will ensure renters who have been hit by the pandemic do not lose their homes through no fault of their own.

And we want to see a permanent end to Section 21. Evictions for no reason were a leading cause of homelessness before the pandemic. Section 21 eviction notices are in frequent use and the pandemic has highlighted that the law is not fit for purpose. The Government has pledged to end ‘no fault’ evictions, and now is the time for it to honour this pledge. 

Without a permanent solution to the rent debt crisis and evictions due to Covid-19 thousands of renters are at serious risk of losing their homes when the ban ends.

Generation Rent will be doing all it can to stop private renters tipping over the edge into homelessness.  Homelessness destroys lives. Help us end the rent debt crisis – sign up at

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Alicia Kennedy</strong></span>
Alicia Kennedy

A leader in strategic planning and campaign organisation, Alicia has had a 25-year career operating at the highest level of national politics.

She worked with Prime Ministers, Cabinet members, hundreds of MPs, and thousands of Councillors and volunteers to deliver successful local and national election campaigns for the Labour Party. She was made a life peer in 2012 and is non-aligned.

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Keeping Everyone In

Chesterfield; many of you will know Chesterfield as home to the Crooked Spire and gateway to the Peak District National Park. Some will know it has a proud history of engineering based on the North Derbyshire Coalfield. Eric Varley and Tony Benn represented the town in Parliament in the latter part of the 20th century. Toby Perkins has been the MP for Chesterfield since 2010. In December 2019 the constituency became a little dot of red in a sea of blue just south of Sheffield.

When I became the first woman Leader of Chesterfield Borough Council in 2017 the issue crying out for my attention was the rise in rough sleeping. Whilst the number of rough sleepers was insignificant when compared with London and nearby cities their needs were as complex and the associated anti-social behaviour created a continuous stream of complaints from residents, town centre businesses and visitors.  Photos of sleeping bags and other paraphernalia next to the town’s coach station adorned the local press on a weekly basis.

The cause of this was a range of factors coming together. Some of the most common were drug or alcohol dependency, mental health issues or benefit changes, particularly the recent introduction of Universal Credit. We also knew that Chesterfield was attracting rough sleepers who saw it as a safer option than being in some of the surrounding cities. The generosity of local people, giving food, clothing and other items, combined with the lower risk of violence towards them, meant that some rough sleepers specifically came to Chesterfield.

In the same way that there was no one cause, equally there was no one easy solution. One thing clear to me was that, as the new Council Leader, I needed to act. One homeless rough sleeper was one too many.  A collaborative approach was needed.  So, I approached Hardyal Dhindsa, Derbyshire’s Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, who I knew was tackling a similar problem in Derby. Together with Toby Perkins we set up the Chesterfield Town Centre Summit.  This summit, chaired by Hardyal, brought together all the public bodies (e.g. police, Chesterfield Borough and Derbyshire County councils, NHS, Probation…), the voluntary and faith sectors and the business community to tackle all the issues.

The group’s work is focused on three linked areas: Enforcement, Treatment and Support & Campaigning, for instance against government welfare reforms and for strengthening legislation against “legal highs” among other issues which had undoubtedly impacted on the situation on the streets.  By working together, the various agencies avoided duplication and identified any areas where support was not currently provided so that both could be addressed.

Our greatest success was the establishment of a Winter Night Shelter co-ordinated by Derby City Mission. Whilst tragic cases of homeless people dying on the streets were being reported daily, every night through the coldest months we were able to offer hot meals, sleeping bags, health checks and conversation. The shelter was hosted by a different church on a fixed rota, so it was not too onerous a commitment for one church’s congregation and volunteers. 

Chesterfield Borough Council, alongside two neighbouring districts, supported this work through its funding of voluntary agencies. We built a strong working relationship with local homelessness charity, Pathways, and others who support the hard-to-reach homeless.

Within Chesterfield council itself, our Homelessness Prevention Team works to provide accommodation for anyone who needs it and is a key player in the North Derbyshire Homelessness Forum, which brings together a range of agencies who are working to prevent homelessness and support people who are rough sleeping.

Little did we know when we closed the doors on our second successful year of the shelter’s operation at the beginning of March this year that the collaborative multi-agency working model developed out of the Town Centre Summit and the North Derbyshire Homelessness Forum would serve us so well during the COVID 19 Pandemic in responding to the government’s demand to bring “Everyone In”.

Led by Chesterfield Borough Council’s Homeless team manager, Derbyshire’s councils have brought in 80 people so far (as at beginning of June 2020), with the majority having been placed in hotel accommodation.

Some of those placed have already been found longer term accommodation, and a recovery plan has already been written to deliver intensive support to individuals experiencing overlapping and challenging issues such as offending, drug and alcohol misuse and poor mental health.

Those placed have been given three hot meals a day and it is hoped that, for some, this stability will give them a chance to seek a more permanent change, especially as support to everyone will continue.

We are now at a crossroads because the hotel accommodation, although effective, cannot be retained beyond the end of June 2020.

Chesterfield Borough Council has therefore led on the development of Derbyshire councils’ “Keeping Everyone In” recovery plan, which has now been submitted to the Government. The plan will ensure that we have the resources to re-house as many people as we can on a permanent basis, whilst continuing to offer the necessary essential support.

The rapid collective response right at the start of the pandemic and our transition now to recovery was only possible due to initiatives such as the Town Centre Summit and the long-standing Derbyshire Homelessness Forum. 

I would also argue that this type of response is only possible when there is clear, decisive political leadership such as that demonstrated by Derbyshire Police and Crime Commissioner Hardyal Dhindsa, Toby Perkins MP and myself.

Labour leading the way and making a difference to people’s lives. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Councillor Tricia Gilby</span></strong>
Councillor Tricia Gilby

Tricia Gilby is the first woman Leader of Chesterfield Borough Council and a Labour Councillor for Brimington South.

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The current crisis presents us with an opportunity to end homelessness for good

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the scale of rough sleeping across the UK, particularly in London, and the crisis continues to create more street homelessness. But it also creates an opportunity to end it.

The government’s letter to local authorities on 26th March telling them that they needed to tackle rough sleeping by getting “Everyone In” by the end of the week was, at best, not backed up with adequate resources. At worst, it betrayed a real lack of understanding of how entrenched homelessness is in London and how many people with only precarious housing have been pushed into street homelessness as a result of the current crisis.

Rough sleeping didn’t start with Covid-19. On the government’s own figures, street homelessness in England spiralled from 1768 people in Autumn 2010 to 4677 people in Autumn 2018.  The cap on local housing allowance that meant some areas had quite literally no private rented homes available to those claiming housing benefit didn’t help. Plus, many rough sleepers have been denied the help they need up to now because they were No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) due to their immigration status.

Even in the current lockdown, homeless outreach teams in London are still reporting new arrivals to the street. The reasons are numerous and complex, but it exposes how many people in the capital live in unstable accommodation. The Magpie Project has reported an increase in mothers and children who were previously “sofa-surfing” becoming homeless. Moving between different sets of friends on different nights is not easy under the current lockdown, neither is staying in a dormitory room in a backpackers’ hostel. Those with NRPF status or fleeing domestic abuse are often reluctant to seek help and may choose to remain hidden.

Huge efforts have been made by the GLA and local authorities to get everyone into safe accommodation. The immense talent and energy of the voluntary, community and grassroots sector has been invaluable. In their recent submission to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s Inquiry into the Impact of Covid-19 on homelessness and the private rented sector, the Museum of Homelessness comment that “The explosion of mutual aid groups has shown there is significant public appetite to help the most vulnerable and the Government should take note of this. The crisis has brought the deep inequalities in the UK to broader public attention.” In Islington, a covid-19 homelessness taskforce works out of a council community centre preparing and distributing food to the borough’s homeless residents currently in temporary accommodation.

But little has been said up to now about medium or long term plans to help people into secure accommodation when the current crisis ends. The immediate need is to ensure that everyone currently placed in emergency accommodation has an ongoing offer of support including permanent housing options. The long-term strategy also needs to recognise that there is a continuing flow of people being made street homeless by the current crisis and all recently set up emergency options need to stay open.

On 2nd May we heard about a new government taskforce to work with councils “to ensure rough sleepers can move into long-term, safe accommodation once the immediate crisis is over…” But now it has also emerged that government funding for the “Everyone In” policy is to end. What measures will this new taskforce put in place and will it actually address the two key issues – a lack of stable long term funding for local authorities and a lack of genuinely affordable homes?

A national Housing First programme would make for an effective long-term strategy.  Born in New York in the 1990s and rolled out nationwide in Finland, Housing First offers an unconditional home to vulnerable rough sleepers together with a package of wrap-around support. Amsterdam’s Housing First service reported in 2013 that 97% of the high needs homeless people who were using it were still in their homes after 12 months. Copenhagen’s programme had a 94% success rate. Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi project found that over two years Housing First participants “achieved significantly greater housing stability, quality of life, and community functioning…” than those on more traditional housing and treatment pathways. It’s also something that we’ve piloted in Islington with five of our own council homes. But for Housing First to work, we first need enough genuinely affordable homes.

What’s more, the government’s flagship First Homes policy suggests that homes for sale discounted by up to £100k will be built through s106 planning agreements, a mechanism that is normally used in London to ensure that social housing is built. Any policy that requires planning agreements to include discounted homes for sale will mean fewer new homes for social rent, and, ultimately, lead to more homelessness.

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people.” Could a national Housing First programme combined with a national building programme of genuinely affordable homes become the 2020 incarnation of this dream? The work done so far presents the opportunity to end homelessness for good, we shouldn’t waste it.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Diarmaid Ward</span></strong>
Diarmaid Ward

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour Councillor and Executive Member for Housing and Development at the London Borough of Islington. He has previously written for CityMetric, CapX and Inside Housing.

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Tenants don’t count says Shapps

Last week the Metro carried a sensible article about the rise in the number of people being forced out of their homes by mortgage lenders or landlords.  16,600 properties were repossessed in the third quarter of 2011, a rise of 20%.
The article clearly pointed out, in the second paragraph, that ‘nearly half of the repossessions were carried out on behalf of mortgage lenders, while 5,140 tenants were evicted for social landlords and another 1,627 on behalf of private landlords.’  They quoted an expert claiming that the numbers would continue to rise as unemployment continued to bite.
So far no surprise, but the article provoked a little tantrum from our housing minister.  It was ‘Inaccurate and misleading’ he said.  And why?  Well, it was because the article was ‘lumping together statistics of homeowners, social tenants and private tenants’.  He then went on to say that the number of home owner repossessions was expected to be below the initial forecast made by the Council of Mortgage Lenders (good) and he set out the help the Government is offering to mortgage holders.
Now the original article was not about tenure but about people losing their homes, whatever their tenure and whatever their circumstances.  Each of those is a tragedy and, as the article said, it will get worse before it gets better.  From a human point of view, the loss of your home under forced circumstances has huge implications for any individual or family.  But there isn’t a hierarchy that says that repossession of a home owner is somehow more important than that of a social or a private tenant.  The whole feel of Shapps’ response is that the latter two don’t matter much, but look how much we care about home owners.  After all, the tenants probably deserved it.
So my advice to the Metro, well done on the article and carry on ‘lumping together’ people who are victims of the recession .  Counting people is always more important.  And getting up Grant’s nose proves that this time you got it right.

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Pinocchio hits the airwaves

On the day that the Lords’ debate on the Welfare Reform Bill reaches the total benefit cap, which has huge implications for housing and homelessness, Red Brick favourite Iain Duncan Smith has hit the airwaves big time.  Unfortunately interviewed mainly by people who don’t know their arsenal from their elbow, his extraordinary statements are largely unchallenged.
As readers will be aware, Pinocchio was prone to fabricating stories and creating tall tales, but his nose grew longer and longer as he did so.  After his interview on the Today programme, I’ll be surprised if Mr Duncan Smith managed to get out of the studio without serious rhinoplasty.
His first major claim was that the total benefit cap will lead to ‘no increase in child poverty’, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  It seemed that the main reason he could claim this was that the Department of Work and Pensions had not even modeled the change in poverty because ‘you can’t directly apportion poverty to this measure’ and they don’t believe it will increase because they ‘will work with families to find a way out’.  Evan Davies has plainly never heard a whackier claim for a product since Dragons Den.
The second claim was that the poor deluded Bishops – he really doesn’t think much of Bishops – were wrong to say that families would be losing child benefit (they argue that CB is not a means tested welfare benefit therefore should be excluded from the cap).  Ludicrously, he said this is because the total benefit cap applies to all benefits therefore you can’t actually say that they will be losing CB when they reach the cap.
Thirdly, IDS said there will be no increase in homelessness ‘as the public understand it’ – whatever that means.  He accused opponents – again including the unfortunate Bishops – of ‘bandying about’ a definition of homelessness that included counting anyone as homeless whose children shared a room.  Personally I have never heard anyone say such a thing.  Nobody he said would be made homeless without a home to go to but nor would the Government ‘trap people… in homes they can’t afford to go to work from’.
It would seem to me that the definition of homelessness that should be used is the one set out by the Government itself in considerable pieces of legislation.  By their own definition, and in the admission of one Eric Pickles, welfare reform will increase homelessness by at least 40,000 and that excludes people who will fall outside the definition of priority groups.
There are vital amendments down today, including the exclusion from the total benefit cap of child benefit and the exclusion of homeless households in temporary accommodation being promoted by Labour front bench spokesperson Lord Bill McKenzie.
I hope Labour Peers will turn up in force to stand up for the tens of thousands of children who will be driven into poverty and the tens of thousands who will be made homeless by these measures, whatever Pinocchio claims.
Update 24 January: The Lords passsed the amendment moved by the Bishop of Rippon to exclude Child Benefit from the total benefit cap.  The Government has said they will seek to reverse their Lords defeats when the Bill returns to the Commons.  The amendment to exclude homeless households in temporary accommodation was defeated.  Many good points were made in the Lords debate and all of the speeches can be found here.

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No room at the Inn

Homelessness always has a special resonance at Christmas. Yesterday Crisis opened its doors for the 40th year running and will provide 20 different services, including food, accommodation and health checks to over 3,000 people. Crisis’s Leslie Morphy believes the importance of the Xmas service they provide is to help people start the journey out of homelessness: ‘The most important aspect of our Crisis at Christmas work is to help our guests begin to take steps out of homelessness: giving health MOTs, housing and job advice, and encouraging them to come to Crisis Skylight where we can offer year round support.’
Whilst people sleeping rough is the most visible sign of homelessness, countless others do not have a safe or secure home. On Tuesday Shelter revealed that nearly 70,000 children will experience Xmas in temporary accommodation, including hostels, bed and breakfasts and refuges across the country. Shelter’s Kay Boycott says: ‘We cannot underestimate the damage homelessness has on children’s lives. They often miss out on vital schooling because they are shunted from place to place and many become ill by the poor conditions they are forced to live in.’
Over at Pickles Towers, the Government talks the talk about tackling homelessness whilst making things far worse. The homelessness safety net has been reduced, money for affordable housing has been slashed, changes to housing benefit will make many tenants – private and social – much more vulnerable to homelessness, Supporting People work on homelessness has also been slashed. Grant Shapps grabs headlines cynically by announcing a bit of money here and there which doesn’t compensate for what has been taken away. Shapps has the nerve to say that homelessness is lower than in 18 of the last 20 years without acknowledging that it had been going down consistently for many years and has now started going up again. He is an expert at the use and abuse of statistics but even he can’t deny the serious change in direction caused by their policies.
As always Steve Bell sums everything up with his image on the theme of ‘No room at the Inn’ and the ‘Big Society Poor House’.
We wish our readers a very happy holiday and an excellent New Year. We hope you have enjoyed Red Brick’s first full year and found something of interest to read and comment on.
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'Rents will fall and no-one will be made homeless'. So what happened, IDS?

Government Ministers have consistently argued that the changes in local housing allowance would lead to reduced rents in the private rented sector and would not lead to more homelessness.
Labour MP Karen Buck spoke at the launch of the NHF’s Home Truths report this morning, and writes exclusively for Red Brick below.
Guest post by Karen Buck MP, Labour MP for Westminster North
A year ago, Iain Duncan Smith said in the House of Commons debate on Housing Benefit:
“The purpose of these (HB) changes is to give a real impetus to getting the rents down to make affordable housing more available in some areas…… Through the emergency Budget and spending review, we proposed a set of housing benefit reforms designed to bring back under control a system that has been out of control. I accept that the responsibility of Government is always to get the balance right as we protect, incentivise, and ensure fairness in the system. Critically, for housing, that means getting the rents down….. There should be no need, with the discretionary allowance, for people to be made homeless. That is just the nonsense with which Labour Members want to scare everybody.”
One year on, we now know that the mean rent increase in London was around 12%.
We are facing an unprecedented crisis of supply and affordability. This has not all occurred since May 2010 – and some of the present problems have roots in the decision to
switch subsidy from ‘bricks and mortar’ to personal subsidy three decades ago. Still, recent developments have intensified the problem acutely.
Over the last year, homelessness has risen sharply, reversing a fairly steady medium term decline. The recent pattern by which homelessness/temporary accommodation has been diverted via the prevention and relief of homelessness strategy is faltering, because families are reluctant to abandon future security as the PRS becomes increasingly unaffordable. (Meanwhile, there are over 100,000 households to whom local council accepted homelessness duties but then diverted them into the private sector who will be
at risk of re-presenting as rents rise and benefits fall).
The central issue remains one of the supply of affordable homes, especially for rent, but whilst we are seeing the final wave of new supply coming through as a result of the Labour government’s investment, the future looks less hopeful because of the Orwellian ‘affordable rent’ model and housing benefit cuts.
‘Affordable rents’ as the means of filling the grant gap mean not just places like Westminster become unaffordable – an ‘affordable rent’ set at 65% of market rents would require a household income of £65k to cover the cost without benefit – but so do poorer
places like Haringey and Newham. In Haringey, a rent set at 80% of local market rents would require a household income of £31k for a 1 bed flat, and in Newham a 2 bed flat would require a household income of £27k. This at a time when the median income for social housing tenants is £12k.
The Household Benefit Cap and Housing Benefit cuts, meanwhile, are estimated in a recent report by London Councils to leave 133,000 households unable to pay their current rents.
Even if this proves to be an over-estimate, staggering numbers of households face a dramatic shortfall in their income and are at risk of upheaval and homelessness as private rents continue to soar. Boroughs with lower housing costs can anticipate a sharp increase in numbers of incomers, many with high service and support needs.
It is worth noting that unemployment, the freeze in real wages and rising housing costs have already contributed to a rise in the number of private sector Housing Benefit
claimants, especially in the suburbs- the London Borough of Redbridge, which includes part of the constituency of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, saw a 65% increase in Local Housing Allowance claims in a little over a year, the largest increase in the country. Some of the areas facing the biggest cost pressures are not the Knightsbridge’s and Mayfair’s of popular myth, but places like Hillingdon and Croydon, whilst Newham will be amongst the places worst hit by the overall Benefit Cap.
Supply may be the solution over the medium and longer term, but in the very short term we need DCLG and DWP to sort out their differences and develop an integrated approach
to housing need and homelessness before they escalate.

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Spinning like a top

Spinning like a top, Housing Minister Grant Shapps is such a busy media bee at the moment that I’m tempted to think that there may be a Ministerial reshuffle in the
air.  Following his Twitter feed is a bit like being on a guided tour of the country’s radio stations with the occasional TV spot thrown in.
But this week he made an attack on the media that caught my interest because he is such a
media-savvy kind of guy.  Speaking at a Conference of the excellent Homeless Link, he made a big thing about the media’s lack of interest in homelessness.  Referring to his announcement of £42m funding for additional hostel beds, according to the Guardian he said “It’s almost impossible to get the outside world to take any notice of homelessness at all. You won’t have seen this information in a single national newspaper this morning and if I have a criticism of homelessness in this country, it’s not about all of you, it’s about them lot out there who just don’t seem to care about it…….I suspect even if I did press release it, no-one outside this room would give a damn.
Taking up his theme, The Guardian conducted an on-line poll (still open if you want to join in) which so far has 84% of voters saying yes – the media fails to represent the issues around homelessness and rough sleeping – against only 16% saying no – the media carries stories about homelessness and housing need.
As I’m in training to become a curmudgeon, my response was to disagree with the question – the issue is more about the quality than the quantity of coverage.
There are lots of stories about street homelessness, especially in the run-in to Xmas,
but the imagery is invariably the same, cardboard cities and shop doorways in the Strand feature highly.  It is good that both Shapps and the otherwise inept mayor Johnson have shown an interest in and made commitments about street homelessness.  However, we will have to wait and see if they actually deliver, and a cynic might argue that it is the very visibility of street homelessness in some parts of London, and the imminent arrival of the world’s media for the Olympics, that have pushed it up the agenda.
But even on this aspect of homelessness, poor media scrutiny means that there is no
contextualisation of Shapp’s announcement and no analysis of how his new sum of money for hostels compares with the large amounts already lost to the homelessness sector due to cuts in Supporting People programmes and cuts in local support for homelessness projects.
Most homelessness is not very visible and the reasons for it are complex.  Many homeless people have difficult back-stories but the underlying reason for homelessness is not social pathology: it is the housing shortage and the lack of access to affordable homes and, where necessary, support.  Increasingly – and the blame here falls on some people within the industry and not just the Government or the media – homelessness is described as just one feature of welfare dependency, the failure of individuals within the system rather than the failure of the system itself.  Worse, homeless applicants are characterised as ne’er-do-wells looking to exploit soft liberal rules, the undeserving poor that should be contrasted with the deserving poor who ‘do the right thing’ by working and sitting on housing waiting lists.
These simplistic characterisations are invariably wrong but they form this Government’s central narrative to justify welfare and housing reform.  The assertion that allocating social housing to homeless people has somehow created housing estates where there are dangerous concentrations of poverty, dysfunctionality and criminality has allowed the Government to get away with making large holes in the homelessness safety net.  Homelessness is rising rapidly, and I suspect the reason is not a sudden increase in fecklessness.
So I agree with Grant Shapps about the poor quality of media coverage.  They love their scapegoats and their attacks on the feckless.  But when he uses phrases like they just don’t seem to care about it and they don’t give a damn, he should try looking in a mirror.

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Worrying trends in homelessness

All the conditions were there and it was only a matter of time before the homelessness figures start to grow again.
All of the critical indicators of homelessness have now turned upwards after many years of decline.
The number of households accepted by local authorities between April and June 2011 was 11,820, a rise of 17% from 10,100 in the same quarter last year.  This is a very significant change in trend.
The rise in acceptances feeds through slowly into the number of households in temporary accommodation, but even this figure has started to rise again – up in the last quarter after 26 successive quarters of reduction, during which it fell from a peak of over 100,000 to less than 50,000.  In London, 35,620 households were in temporary accommodation at the  end of June 2011, just under three quarters of the total for England.
For those of us who lived through the bed and breakfast crisis of the 1980s, it is extremely worrying to see the numbers increasing significantly again.  From a low of 1,880 at the end of 2009 it is now back up to 3,120.  The number of families with children in B&B, which troughed at 400 at the end of 2009, is now back up to 1,210, a rise of over 60% on the year.  The consistent success in bringing this figure down, from a peak this century of
14,000 in 2002 (of which nearly 7,000 were families with children) has been brought to a halt.  One reason is that the use of private sector leased accommodation is declining.
With regard to the reasons for homelessness, the increase between 2009/10 and 2010/11 of 4,140 in the number of households accepted (40,020 to 44,160) is largely explained by two factors: relatives and friends (other than parents) being no longer able or willing to provide accommodation, which increased by 960 (5,000 – 5,960) and the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy, which increased by 2,050 (4,580 – 6,630).  Given the increasing reliance on private rented accommodation, the latter increase is a sign of things to come.
The apparent success in tackling homelessness since 2004 has not always been what it seems.  There were huge changes in policy and approach which put much more emphasis on managing demand.  This was a mixture of excellent practice – in the development of housing options services and homelessness prevention work – and the less excellent practice of diversion – securing private rented accommodation for households before they even registered as homeless, thereby keeping them out of the statistics.
Of the 164,000 households where action was successful in preventing homelessness in 2010/11, more than 82,000 were assisted in obtaining alternative accommodation, predominantly private lets.  This was the precursor of the current government’s policy to allow councils to discharge their homelessness duty by securing private rented accommodation against the wishes of the applicant.  Despite the best efforts of councils, many suspect that the policy of placing homeless households into private lets will lead a revolving door of insecurity and repeat homelessness.
Detailed homelessness statistics (live tables) are available here.