Comment Blog 25 April, 2018

Tackling homelessness: a time for new solutions

Homelessness in Britain is on the rise. In 2017, the homelessness charity Shelter revealed that more than 300,000 people in Britain are living on the streets or in temporary accommodation, demonstrating an increase of 13,000 in a year.  Adding to these statistics, 2018 research from Crisis UK and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that the national total of rough sleepers has risen by 169 per cent since 2010.

A history of homelessness

Britain has faced this crisis before. In the late 1970s, households that were accepted as homeless and in priority need of assistance by local authorities in England was around 50,000, rising to 140,000 in 1991/92. This period also witnessed extreme levels of rough sleeping. The area surrounding Waterloo station, for example, became known as “cardboard city”.

By 2002, the situation had dramatically improved. In London, estimates suggested that the number of rough sleepers had decreased by two-thirds. In Birmingham, it was even more impressive at 96 per cent.

Public service reform from governments that considered rough sleeping a top priority sparked this change. In 1990, the Rough Sleeping Initiative was established to help fund local projects across the country to tackle homelessness. Under Tony Blair, a Rough Sleepers Unit added new focus to this issue. The Unit ran Contact and Assessment Teams (CATs) that created detailed and personalised action plans to help the homeless get accommodation, work and tackle any abuse addictions. In addition, Tenancy Sustainment Officers were assigned to the ex-homeless to help them to keep their new homes.

The state of play today

The reduction in rough sleeping in the early 2000s rightly deserves praise. However, it misrepresents the full picture of homelessness. Indeed, rough sleeping is only part of the problem. Most homeless people then, and now, are living in temporary accommodation, such as B&Bs, private hostels and guest houses.

This week, a report from Justlife shed more light on this issue. It argued that many people who live in unsupported temporary accommodation (UTA) do not always fit the legal definition of homeless. By adding these people to official figures, the likely B&B population, for example, is over 51,500 – almost ten times more than statistics suggest. A recent article in the Manchester Evening News revealed the squalid conditions that many of the “hidden homeless” currently live in.

New ideas

The current situation needs fresh ideas that takes into account both rough sleepers and those that live in temporary accommodation.

The introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act this month is a step in the right direction. It offers new measures to relieve and prevent homelessness, and means that local authorities have a legal duty to provide meaningful support.

A range of interventions could build on this new law. Housing First is one approach that could have a significant impact. This system secures homeless people a stable home, rather than temporary accommodation, and is not conditional on them receiving treatment or rehabilitation beforehand. In Finland, where this programme has been adopted, homelessness has fallen by 35 per cent since 2010 – making it the only place in Europe where homelessness is on the decline. The UK government has now committed to pilot this scheme, investing £28 million for programmes in the West Midlands Combined Authority, Greater Manchester and Liverpool.

For those living in temporary accommodation, stronger regulation could help improve living conditions. In Manchester, Andy Burnham has pledged to create a Good Landlord scheme to regulate the standard of privately rented homes. The strategy also aims to tackle unaffordable and insecure tenancies.

While these initiatives are laudable, preventing future homelessness must not be ignored. Early intervention, through a strategy of integrated services and better data, could help stop the growth in homelessness numbers. An integrated response across housing and health and social care services, which takes into account the complex needs of people edging towards homelessness, could assist targeted interventions. Croydon Council’s homelessness strategy is one example of how this could work. The Council created a combined department covering housing, benefits, debt management and social care to help identify households at risk of homelessness. This could also be informed by better data that acknowledges how widespread homelessness is, and helps to identify problems on a national and local level.

This list is not exhaustive – the building of more homes, job creation, skills training, and regional leadership could all play a part in preventing and alleviating homelessness. However, it offers some possible solutions to a problem that cannot be ignored.