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Homelessness: an increasing problem

There has been an unprecedented rise in homelessness in the past five years. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), in September 2016, 14,930 households were statutorily (unintentionally) homeless and in “priority need” (families, the elderly, the sick, veterans, and victims of domestic violence), and 64,630 were in temporary accommodation – up 9% on 2015 and 55% on 2010. 

Anyone without a permanent home or living in temporary accommodation is legally homeless, but the most obvious sign of increased homelessness is the number of people sleeping rough on the streets. In the autumn of 2015, the DCLG recorded 3,569 people sleeping rough in England, but in its 2015/16 annual bulletin CHAIN (the Combined Homelessness and Information Network), reported that outreach workers had found 8,096 people sleeping rough, 5,276 of whom were seen for the first time. Although 64% of those new rough sleepers were seen only once, there has been a 15% increase since 2014/15 in “entrenched rough sleepers” – people who have been seen in consecutive years.

The highest number of rough sleepers, as you would expect, is in London, and within London the City of Westminster is “home” to roughly four times as many as any other local authority, principally because it is also home to Victoria rail and coach stations. London’s largest voluntary-sector homelessness charity, The Passage, is also in Victoria. It operates a resource centre – which helps up to 200 people a day – a 40-bed hostel and 16 self-contained flats. It aims to get people off the streets, and back into work and independent living, but the shortage of affordable housing always presents a problem.

Single people with no dependants – including many with mental-health problems, who are not (surprisingly) priority need, and a number of ex-services personnel, who are priority need but seem to fall through the cracks of the system – find it particularly difficult to get help and are often forced to sleep on the street, where they are not only vulnerable to illness (the average life expectancy of a homeless person is 47), but as a recent publication highlights, are also vulnerable to modern-day slavery1.

Why has there been such a marked increase in homelessness in the past five years? Most charities and housing experts agree that it is primarily as a result of the Government’s welfare reforms, combined with reductions in the availability of affordable housing, rising rents, and cuts to councils’ funding.

Welfare reforms. Cuts to benefit payments have hit incomes, but the principal issue is that housing benefits have been increased by just 1 per cent a year since 2013 – and are now scheduled to be frozen for the next four years. A recent survey of 800 landlords found that more than half no longer rent to people on housing benefit.

Affordable housing. The housing crisis is likely to get worse as the “right-to-buy” scheme continues. The reduction in social housing has forced more people to rent from private landlords. According to Shelter, the advice, support and legal services charity, the loss of a private tenancy is the leading cause of homelessness in England. The Major government’s 1996 Housing Act enables most tenancies to be terminated, for any reason, when the lease expires.

Rising rents. Rents have increased at a much higher rate than housing benefit. Historically, there was legislation in the UK to ensure fair rents, prevent evictions without a valid reason, and to oblige landlords to maintain premises. The Thatcher government’s 1980 Housing Act abolished most rights for tenants and allowed landlords to fix rents and, in addition, its 1985 Landlord and Tenant Act removed the obligation for landlords to maintain property.

Cuts to council funding. Over recent years, billions of pounds have been cut from local authority funding, and Communities Secretary, Greg Clark, has said that it will be reduced by a further 6.7% between 2016 and 2020 as part of the “Conservative-led revolution” to devolve responsibility for funding municipal services from Whitehall to local councils. Islington Council’s funding has been halved since 2010 and, by 2020, will have been cut by 70%. It is difficult for councils, particularly in central London, to find emergency

support and accommodation for homeless people, but it is obvious that the lack of truly affordable housing is at the root of the problem. Islington Council is leading the way by investing £40 million in new council homes over the current financial year, and plans to build 500 council homes and 1,500 other genuinely affordable homes by 2019. Even in the unlikely event, however, that all local authorities were to match that effort, it is extremely doubtful that nearly 100,000 families – and thousands of single people –would be able to have a home of their own, even though there are thousands of empty homes in the UK. In February 2016, The Guardian reported that more than 22,000 homes in London had been empty for more than six months (8,561 for more than two years and 1,151 for more than ten).

There are some measures that councils could take: they could, for example, levy an additional rate of council tax, or compulsorily purchase empty houses. Again, it seems, that Islington is leading the way. “Last year”, The Guardian reported, “Islington council implemented planning laws aimed at banning owners of new homes from leaving the properties empty for longer than three months, with the threat of legal action for those flouting the ban.” This is great, but the government needs to take similar action on a national level – and there are no prizes for guessing how likely that is.

Gillian Burke/The PassageUnderstanding and Responding to Modern Slavery Within the Homelessness Sector

Adrianne LeMan, Barnsbury ward

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