A month ago, in the week that the new homelessness regulations came into force, I did a Red Brick piece on homelessness that I called ‘Hypocrisy and Doublespeak’. The aim was to highlight the absurdity of the Government trying to take the moral high ground on homelessness – both Mark Prisk and his predecessor, Grant Shapps, having written stroppy letters to or about various councils and made pronouncements about their responsibilities – whilst adopting a raft of policies that they know will make it much worse.
The Government is fully aware that homelessness will rise rapidly as a result of its housing and benefits policies and is making a concerted pre-emptive effort to lay off the blame – even accusing its best friends of ‘unacceptable and unlawful’ practices. But both central and local government (at least in London) know that dispersal – councils discharging their homelessness duty by offering private rented accommodation in cheaper parts of the country – is inevitable and that the damage to families and especially children and vulnerable people will be immense. Not quite the Xmas message the government wants to send out.
In the post I referred to the advice being given to local authorities by a consultant, Andy Gale, who was billed as being a speaker for the DCLG. My view was that his advice was repugnant and that it revealed the real direction of Government policy on homelessness – deliberately removing the safety net and reducing homelessness acceptances through tougher application rules and processes (gatekeeping).
Patrick Butler of the Guardian had broken the story about Andy Gale but then became embroiled in a row with DCLG, who denied that Gale was anything to do with them. Butler’s subsequent investigations revealed that Gale was ‘hosted’ by Newham council at DCLG’s request and with their funding to advise other councils on managing homelessness, raising questions over the veracity of an answer given by Mark Prisk to a Parliamentary Question by Karen Buck MP. Butler tells more of the tale in his fascinating follow-up piece.
The story reinforces the impression that DCLG wants to encourage authorities to use gatekeeping methods to reduce the number of successful homeless applications but they don’t want to be seen to be doing so. And their rather bullying tone reveals some anxiety to avoid being labelled as the real villains (which of course they are).
Interesting spats aside, the back story to this is the complete turnabout in homelessness policy over the last decade, since the high point of the 2002 Homelessness Act when it looked as if Government had finally put together a package of strategies, policies and duties that would tackle the roots of the problem. Labour had made a number of important strides in its approach to homelessness: rough sleeping was being brought down, the long term use of bed and breakfast accommodation for families was being ended, and the number of new homeless households presenting to local authorities was falling. But in the decade since, the failure of affordable housing supply has shifted us step-by-step from a liberal and progressive stance to a reactionary blame-the-victim position. The Tories have even shifted people who become homeless from the deserving to the undeserving poor.
There was no single turning point but it is interesting to observe that the requirement to adopt a strategic approach to homelessness had a downside: it spurred creative minds into devising a range of new practices for dealing with homelessness, from genuinely important preventative work, such as family conciliation, to devices the purpose of which was to ‘discourage’ applications and to ‘divert’ people into courses of action other than presenting as homeless. This was given a big push by the introduction of a well-meaning but muddled policy to cut in half the number of households in temporary accommodation over a five year period to 2010. Its in the math: if supply did not increase, the only way to meet the target was to cut demand and stop people coming through with a right to social rented housing. Even though the target was backed by funding and lots of ideas for reinventing TA, in practice it put too much pressure on the system to achieve the unachievable.
Some of us at the time could sense a change in attitude to homelessness and saw dangers in the then Government’s proposals to achieve the target ‘by offering a wider range of preventative measures and increasing access to settled homes’. This subtle use of language opened the door for those authorities that moved seamlessly from ‘prevention’ to ‘gatekeeping’: a number of authorities were already more hostile to homeless households and wanted to be able to allocate more of their limited number of social rented homes to other priorities. The homeless also started getting blamed for concentrations of poverty and even anti-social behaviour on social housing estates. The description ‘settled homes’ really meant the first national endorsement for greater use of the private rented sector.
In the years since, homeless households have faced more and more barriers to the simple process of presenting as homeless or being threatened with homelessness and being recorded as such. The fact that numbers are going up again is testament to how hard the housing market is. Progress into a social tenancy has become harder and harder and diversion into private renting is now becoming the norm. And that’s where Mr Gale’s advice comes, because people like him make money from showing councils how to manage demand without breaking the law and deal with the politics as well. The excellent Nearly Legal website has published Mr Gale’s briefing so you can judge for yourself.
Homelessness is a touchstone issue for many of us who cut our teeth in the campaign for effective homelessness legislation in the 1970s to end the era of ‘Cathy Come Home’. If the way you treat the homeless is a measure of our civilization, the Barbarians are back in control.