Change Universal Credit to help prevent homelessness

Why we need honest conversations and strong leadership, led by those with direct experience, to make sure recent progress in tackling homelessness doesn't unravel.

Reading through today’s report, I’ve been trying to reconcile what the latest Homelessness Monitor Scotland 2019 tells us, with what I see every day on my commute to and from work. 

The latest research by Heriot-Watt University for JRF and Crisis suggests that the numbers of people rough sleeping and presenting as homeless have remained relatively stable in recent years. This has occurred despite the strong headwind of UK welfare reform, undermining prevention efforts across all our front-line services. It is welcome news and confirms that further progress is possible.

In Scotland we have a firm commitment to end homelessness backed by legislative rights to settled housing. We have significant programmes in place to boost affordable housing supply and to prevent people being swept into homelessness.

However, progress reported in previous years has stalled. Almost 30,000 people were assessed as ‘legally homeless’ in 2018. While 700 people rough sleeping on an average night might be fewer than previous years, it is still 700 too many. With over 10,000 people in temporary accommodation, including a sharp recent rise for families, we can’t be complacent and equate good policy ambition (which we have) with outcomes achieved (which we haven’t).

One of the challenges in addressing homelessness is that some of it is hidden. And yet, what I see every day has been an increase in visible homelessness and destitution, not only people with evidently complex needs (some of whom I recognise as having been on the street for a long time) but also more women, younger people, and those who may have no recourse to public funds. 

Recent Scottish Government statistics reveal that the proportion of homelessness assessments where the applicant had at least one support need, increased from 34% in 2012/13 to 47% in 2017/18. Our report last year highlighted how those pulled into destitution had commonly experienced harsh debt recovery and benefit deductions, as well as delays, errors and sanctions. Much of that suffering could be avoided.

The research raises other questions, too. In Edinburgh, for example, homelessness application numbers are down despite critical housing shortages. Glasgow has the highest share of rough sleepers in its homeless population, despite improved collaboration between housing, health and social care. Both councils, among others, have been criticised for their failure to provide adequate temporary accommodation to all who need it - clearly the published data doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Ending Homelessness Together Action Plan has cross-party support and made 70 recommendations, which, if implemented and resourced well, could drive significant progress. As well as moving people quickly into a permanent home, the recommendations have a clear focus on those most at risk and emphasise the need to invest in prevention across all services – challenging to do in practice, while meeting acute and statutory needs, without dedicated resources.

With Universal Credit now fully rolled-out and the benefit cap affecting a growing number of families, the pressures locking people in poverty are likely to increase. Over three-quarters of councils who took part in the research said they expect homelessness to rise due to Universal Credit. Many already report difficulty in accessing social housing for homeless people, making the shift to effective prevention even more pressing. 

Urgent changes are needed in the social-security system:

  • Removing the need for advances, by ensuring the first Universal Credit payment is made within two weeks.
  • Improving the way Universal Credit pays for housing costs, so that tenants are not confronted by arrears and demand letters, and landlords are not carrying undue risk.
  • Ending the benefit freeze a year early.
  • Ensuring front-line services have the skills to deliver bespoke support so people don’t fall through the cracks.

As I walk to work, I am reminded how lucky I am, and how vital it is that recent progress in tackling homelessness is not allowed to unravel. If our practice is to match our ambition around increasing prevention, we will need honest conversations and strong leadership, led by those with direct experience.