Comment Blog 14 May, 2019

Following the letter or the spirit of the law? The impact of the Homelessness Reduction Act one year on

The idea that ‘anyone can become homeless’ is misleading. In reality, some young people are much more likely to experience homelessness than others: for example, one third of care leavers will experience homelessness within the first two years of leaving care. Because youth homelessness is predictable, it can and should be prevented.

However, the legal responsibility for youth homelessness prevention does not reflect the ways that young people interact with public services. Local housing authorities have been given responsibility for preventing homelessness but are typically a last resort for young people at-risk. For early intervention to be effective, other public bodies including schools, youth services and leaving care teams have a crucial role to play.

Last year’s flagship legislation aimed at preventing homelessness, the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA), was a step in the right direction. The act placed a renewed focus on prevention and included a new duty on public bodies, such as hospitals, jobcentres and prisons, to notify a local housing authority if they think one of their service users may be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. How far the Act has been embraced as a first step towards a more preventative and collaborative approach to homelessness has been mixed, however, with knock-on effects for service quality.

Freedom of Information requests sent by Reform, and discussed further in our latest report, show significant divergence in the way local authorities have chosen to meet their new duties. Training provided by local authorities to organisations with a ‘duty to refer’ ranged from email advice to a one-to-one session, while some provided no training at all. The accuracy of referrals of at-risk young people from organisations with a ‘duty to refer’ were similarly inconsistent. For 25 per cent of local authorities, at least one in two referrals were incorrect.

Such inconsistencies in responses to the HRA are unsurprising given local approaches to homelessness varied before its introduction. For those authorities with established cultures of collaboration and prevention that preceded the HRA, the new legislation merely formalised existing processes. For others, however, the HRA has represented a completely new way of working. Before and after the HRA, best practice can be traced to proactive individuals going above and beyond the call of duty.

The challenge, then, is how to ensure a culture of collaboration to prevent homelessness is not the exception, but the rule. To do this will require looking beyond the actions of local authorities to ensure that other public bodies have due regard for young people at risk. In reality, this could mean a duty on hospitals to not discharge into homelessness, while for schools and colleges, this could mean a duty to train staff to recognise and respond to the early warning signs of youth homelessness.

Steps taken at the local level must also be supported by national government, whose approach in  recent years been described as “light touch”. This should include ensuring policy decisions taken in one department do not work against efforts to prevent homelessness in another, and enabling local authorities to invest in prevention through replacing short-term grants with longer, ring-fenced funding cycles. To work in the spirit of the HRA, the legislation must be seen as a new minimum on which local and national government can continue to build.