More change needed for homelessness policy in England to work

Homelessness policy in England is changing, but a lack of affordable homes and a freeze on support for housing costs risks undermining progress, says Brian Robson.

I don’t know who first said ‘change happens slowly, then all at once’ but they could have been talking about homelessness policy in England. Tomorrow the Homelessness Reduction Bill has its third reading in the House of Lords – one of the final hurdles for a piece of legislation that will entitle more people to meaningful help and support when they’re facing homelessness. And if that isn’t enough to digest, the lead story in last week’s Inside Housing was that the government is backing a new feasibility study into the evidence-based Housing First model.

When JRF and Crisis published last year’s Homelessness Monitor England both of these very positive initiatives seemed a long way off. Today we publish the 2017 edition, and they are on the verge of becoming a reality.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the shortage of homes people can afford. This year’s Homelessness Monitor England paints a bleak picture on access to housing. The research team sent a survey to all 326 English Councils to get an accurate feel for how it is on the ground. 162 of them responded. Of these:

  • Almost two thirds (64%) of responding councils across England said they were struggling to find social tenancies for homeless people.
  • Half said they find it ‘very difficult’ to assist applicants into privately rented accommodation.
  • 85% said they were having difficulties assisting single people aged 25-34 into accommodation.
  • 88% are finding it difficult to house large families.

There are two issues here. The first is a shortage of housing. The new Housing White Paper will do something to tackle this, and it’s good news that the government now sees an important role for renting; but these positive steps will only help those facing homelessness if they drive up the supply of genuinely affordable accommodation. We need a long-term strategy to build more affordable homes of all types and, so far, plans fall short.

The second issue is support for housing costs. Councils told us that the freeze on Local Housing Allowance – the amount of benefit available for support with housing costs – is now causing serious issues:

LHA is staggeringly out of step with actual market rents, to the extent that there are virtually no properties... let at LHA rates. Coupled with landlords’ increasing reluctance to accept people on benefits, and unwillingness to offer anything beyond an initial 6 month AST (Assured Shorthold Tenancy), it is now all but impossible to place people into the private sector.
Local authority in the South of England

We need an effective safety net that helps people meet rising costs and prevents people from falling into homelessness and extreme poverty. The freeze on working age benefits should be ended, otherwise we risk undermining positive initiatives like the Homelessness Reduction Bill.

It’s worth remembering this isn’t a small problem. Today’s Homelessness Monitor shows there were over 271,000 homelessness case actions by English local authorities in 2015/16. This is totally unacceptable. We need to ensure that everyone in the UK can enjoy a decent and secure standard of living. That won’t be the case until we have the affordable homes and the safety net we need. Let’s hope the next twelve months brings more change.