Homelessness is soaring, councils are struggling to cope, and there’s worse to come unless the government acts, the charity Crisis warns. Mark Cantrell reports
Someday we’ll grow numb to England’s burgeoning homelessness problem; maybe that day has been and gone, but the human cost of the housing crisis continues to chart a grim progression.
Almost a quarter of a million households across England – 242,000, to be exact – are now experiencing the worst forms of homelessness, according to the charity, Crisis.
This includes sleeping rough on the streets, spending night after night ‘sofa surfing’ with friends or family, or else stuck in the limbo of unsuitable temporary accommodation.
In theory, councils are supposed to step in and offer some kind of assistance to those who find themselves in such dire straits; in practice, it’s all getting a bit much.
Simply put, according to the charity, local authorities are struggling with the level of need they face; a situation compounded by a chronic lack of genuinely affordable housing. We might add, the sorry situation is made worse by rising rents and wider cost-of-living pressures.
Holiday in dystopia
This is just another chapter in the dystopian saga of England’s dysfunctional housing system, presented courtesy of Crisis with the publication of its latest Homelessness Monitor.
The annual state-of-the-nation report, carried out by researchers from Heriot-Watt University, is claimed to provide the strongest evidence yet of how the cost-of-living crisis, rising rents, and “widespread destitution” are combining to drive up levels of homelessness – leaving councils increasingly unable to cope.
Indeed, earlier this month, the organisation London Councils warned that local authorities in the capital are buckling under the pressure of a “homelessness disaster”, with around one in 50 Londoners without a secure roof over their head.
Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, who led the Heriot-Watt team, said their research highlights how councils across the country are facing an “impossible situation”.
The mind may boggle; if the situation is impossible for local authorities, contemplate how it must feel for the people themselves to face such bleak circumstances. But let’s not shoot the messenger.
“With record numbers of people experiencing homelessness, the vast majority of councils are expecting this already dire situation to become even worse,” Fitzpatrick added.
“Without access to affordable private rented homes or social housing, we are only going to see more and more households forced into homelessness.
“We need to address the root causes that are pushing people into homelessness in the first place to ensure that everyone has a safe place to call home.”
Responding to the Crisis report, Councillor Darren Rodwell, London Council’s executive member for regeneration, housing and planning, said the situation is “fast-becoming disastrous” and that government action is urgently required at the “national level”.
“In London we face increasingly unmanageable pressures,” he added. “It is utterly unsustainable to have one in 50 Londoners living in temporary accommodation. There is at least one homeless child in every London classroom – an appalling statistic showing the massive social impact of the worsening housing crisis.
“Ministers must work with councils and other partners across the housing and homelessness sectors to reverse these trends … We cannot afford delay. This is an emergency situation needing an emergency response.”
The Homelessness Monitor draws on a national survey of councils, together with statistical analysis and in-depth interviews.
This year, it found that 85% of councils across England say they are facing an increase in people experiencing homelessness. This is the most times such a response has been given since the survey began, Crisis said.
At the same time, many councils stated that the ongoing freeze to housing benefit, dwindling social housing supply, and a general lack of genuinely affordable housing is making it increasingly difficult to support struggling households out of homelessness.
The report also lays bare how unstable the private rented market has become, with 88% of councils reporting an increase in requests for support from those evicted from that sector. What’s more, 93% anticipate a further increase over the coming year.
“Councils work incredibly hard to prevent the tragedy of homelessness from happening, as well as supporting those who find themselves affected,” a spokesperson for the Local Government Association told Housing Digital.
“However, increasingly complex homelessness pressures, combined with depleting social housing stock, and an unaffordable private rented sector feels like a perfect storm for already stretched council services.
“It is important that the government brings forward its commitment to removing Section 21 evictions, and looks at developing a cross-departmental prevention strategy, which addresses the causes of homelessness, particularly unfreezing Local Housing Allowance rates.”
As the Crisis report points our, councils’ access to social housing has declined over the years; much as social housing has itself declined in number, but that’s another sorry tale in itself.
“The alarm bells are ringing loud and clear. The Westminster government must address the chronic lack of social housing and increase housing benefit, so it covers the true cost of rents.”Matt Downie
One consequence of this, of course, is that local authorities must increasingly turn to the private rented sector to try and house low-income households. An expensive business, and – it is fair to say – precarious, given the cruel confluence of rising private sector rents and and an ever-more miserly approach to benefits, which has seen housing support wither for working and non-working households alike.
As the report highlights, “surging rents and fierce competition” for properties is making it near impossible to house people experiencing homelessness in some areas of the country. The “overwhelming” majority (97%) of local authorities told the researchers they have struggled to source private rentals over the past year.
That leaves temporary accommodation, with the number of households living in such now said to be at record highs. The report notes how the use of temporary accommodation is “reaching breaking point”. Councils reported they are “running out of temporary accommodation” and “struggling to procure more”.
The grimmer it gets; grimmer still it becomes. That appears to a ‘golden rule’ of this chronic, multi-faceted housing crisis.
Councils are being forced to rely on inappropriate forms of accommodation as a ‘solution’, Crisis points out. What this means in practice is thousands of people – including families with children – being stuck, maybe for months – even years – on end, in B&Bs or nightly paid accommodation, often far away from their families and communities in out-of-borough placements.
Conditions can be appalling in such accommodation: A lack of basic necessities for cooking and washing only adds to the indignity. And, as this protracted crisis unfolds, the tragedy of ‘temporary’ shows worrying signs of emerging permanence.
Crisis estimates that the number of households in such accommodation has tripled in the last decade. More worryingly, it notes, its research forecasts a doubling in the next 20 years – to an estimated 49,500 – households living in unsuitable temporary accommodation.
That is, unless – as we get to the crux of Crisis’ point – the government takes action.
Make or break
Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis’ warns that the homelessness system in England is at “breaking point”.
“Temporary accommodation should be a short-term emergency measure yet, as the report shows, it is increasingly becoming the default solution for many councils,” he added. “This is leaving thousands of people living out their lives in a permanent state of limbo, enduring cramped, unsuitable conditions – with a fifth of households in temporary accommodation stuck there for over five years.
“It comes as no surprise that councils are reporting that they are running out of temporary accommodation. For too long the emphasis has been on managing homelessness, not building the social homes we need to provide security to low-income households.
“The alarm bells are ringing loud and clear. The Westminster government must address the chronic lack of social housing and increase housing benefit, so it covers the true cost of rents. We cannot allow this situation to escalate further and consign more lives to the misery of homelessness.”
Unlike councils, housing associations don’t have a statutory homelessness duty, but it’s still an issue of grave importance for the sector.
Dean McGlynn, external affairs manager at the National Housing Federation, told Housing Digital: “As a country, we should be ashamed that we have allowed the housing crisis to reach a point where more children and families are homeless and growing up in inadequate temporary accommodation, than ever before.
“This situation is the result of decades of underinvestment in social housing, which has left an acute shortage of homes affordable for people on the lowest incomes.
“Today, 4.2 million people need social housing, including people living in poverty, overcrowding and homeless. We need to be building 90,000 social homes each year to address the shortage, yet last year less than 6,500 were built.
“On top of this, severe cuts to benefits over the last decade have made it increasingly difficult for people to pay for food, heating and rent, putting them at greater risk of poverty and homelessness.
“As we head towards the next election, we are calling on all parties to urgently commit to a long-term plan for housing that prioritises building the social homes we need across the country. Alongside this we need a benefit system that ensures people have enough money to live on.”
For its part, a government spokesperson told Housing Digital: “We are determined to prevent homelessness before it occurs. Temporary accommodation ensures no family is without a roof over their head, but we have been clear that the use of B&Bs should always be a last resort.
“We have given £2bn over three years to help local authorities tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, targeted to areas where it is needed most.
“We are set to spend over £30bn on housing support this year, on top of significant cost of living help worth around £3,300 per household.
“We’ve also maintained our £1bn boost to Local Housing Allowance, while our Discretionary Housing payments provide a safety net for anyone struggling to meet their rent or housing costs.”
Yet, still, homelessness rises; it’s fair to observe. If only there was more social housing to go around, as the commentators above lamented.
A few years ago, it was fashionable for bright, smartly dressed people to tell audiences at housing conferences that the social tenure was a ‘failed brand’. Tell that to the people, today, who desperately need it.
Mark Cantrell is the editor of Housing Digital
Image credit: Marjan Apostolovic/Shutterstock
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