In the heady days before and after the passage of the 2002 Homelessness Act I worked with Shelter on its plans to make the most of the new legislation. Although there were several important changes to general entitlements, the point that most excited Shelter and its then Director Chris Holmes was the introduction of duties on local authorities to review homelessness in their areas and to formulate statutory homelessness strategies.
Holmes wanted Shelter to transform itself from being an external critic of local government to becoming an active partner in a joint enterprise to end the scourge of homelessness. Although only partially successful, a lot of groundbreaking work was done across the whole country.
In the decade since, the optimism about being able to tackle homelessness at its roots has dissipated, to be replaced by a much harsher blaming culture and, now, under the Coalition, the dismantling of the homelessness safety net.
In the years immediately after the Act, councils, encouraged by a highly active team at CLG, introduced a range of new strategies and policies so that the management of the homelessness function improved significantly. Councils were, however, under huge and increasing pressure due to the shortage of social housing. Over time it became hard to distinguish between well intentioned policies, such as homelessness prevention and providing housing options services, and increasingly tough gatekeeping exercises where the main purpose was to reduce and divert demand. In particular, the Government’s top target of reducing the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation by 50%, on the surface an aggressive and progressive policy, drove many authorities down the gatekeeping path to the point where rules were stretched to the limit and sometimes broken. Because the key indicators – numbers in TA, homelessness acceptances – were moving in the right direction little attention was paid to what was going on. And, despite the growing barriers, those people accepted as unintentionally homeless and in priority need knew that at the end of a very long hard road a social rented home with a genuinely affordable rent and security of tenure would provide a platform for them to rebuild their lives.
As the years progressed, homeless people became parcelled up in the campaign by elements of the media and politicians like Ian Duncan Smith to stigmatise and demonise all ‘welfare’ recipients. Some Labour politicians signed up to the new blame culture and some gave in too easily to the pressure it brought, but the Coalition has turned it into an art form. Homelessness is primarily an outcome of our generation-long failure to build affordable homes, but people on housing waiting lists are encouraged to blame the homeless for taking all the homes. Why should ‘they’ get all the homes when ‘we’ hard working families cannot? The image of the teenage single mother getting pregnant to get a council flat has become an icon alongside the shirker lying in bed all day living the life of Riley on the state and the lower orders breeding like rabbits just to get more benefits. The name of the game is blame the victim and divide and rule. The truth is that homeless households are little different from the general population represented on local housing waiting lists.
I think it is fair to comment that the homelessness safety net is being dismantled. The next step is that, from November, defined homeless households who would normally have had the right to be offered a council or housing association home will have to accept private rented accommodation if it is offered by the council (under certain terms), as is explained by Ben Reeve-Lewis in his excellent piece last week on Guardian Housing Network. As we become a backward country in social policy terms, the analysis that it is reasonable for homeless households – by definition families with children or people who are vulnerable in some way – to be ‘discharged’ into the high cost and low security private rented sector has attracted surprisingly little comment from the social housing movement. Even within the sector homeless people are blamed for everything from causing their own homelessness to exploiting the system to being responsible for concentrations of deprivation and anti-social behaviour on estates.
The myths and stereotypes are winning the argument and to turn it round we need to show rather more old-fashioned solidarity.