The homelessness ‘safety net’ suffered another blow last week when Westminster Council decided to prevent homeless households from bidding for social housing for 12 months after the Council accepts it has a duty towards them. The Council plans to discharge its duty in most cases by identifying private rented accommodation for them.
Housing now receives quite a lot of media coverage but very little is devoted to homelessness. Last week there was a short Panorama programme and a few media outlets picked up on the latest increase in the number of households in temporary accommodation. But this is an era when it seems even ‘Cathy Come Home’ would leave the country unmoved.
It seems that homelessness has become part of the ‘scrounger’ narrative that rules the media so completely. Anyone seeking state help is fair game (unless you are a pensioner or a member of the royal family). The cynicism that has been deliberately engendered prevents almost any rational debate about serious issues like unemployment, disability and housing. Homeless people are contrasted with hardworking ‘aspirational’ people who want to become home owners and deserve help to get on the first steps of the home ownership ladder. No serious coverage is given to the fact that the huge commitment of subsidies, tax reliefs and guarantees to private property ownership dwarfs the trickle of grant into social housing and the costs of meeting the needs of homeless people.
There has been a complete turnabout in attitudes towards homeless people and in homelessness policy over the last decade. 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 – seems a long time ago. By then the Labour Government had some achievements to its name: rough sleeping was being brought down, the long term use of bed and breakfast accommodation for families was being ended, the number of new homeless households presenting to local authorities was falling, and councils were to be required to take a long term strategic approach. The failure of affordable housing supply has caused a step-by-step transition away from a liberal and progressive policy.
Labour’s apparently well-meaning policies – setting a clear commitment to halve the numbers in temporary accommodation and introducing a more sophisticated ‘housing options’ approach to homelessness assessment – provided the cover for the introduction of a multitude of damaging ‘gatekeeping’ practices. However, the most important shift in policy has been the Coalition’s decision to allow councils to discharge their duty by securing a private letting for the household, removing the right to wait for a social home. Taken over a decade, all the changes mean that homeless households now face many more barriers to the process of presenting as homeless, and achieving a social rented tenancy is becoming much more rare.
Gatekeeping is the reason why the number of applications under the homelessness legislation has plateaued despite all the factors that would normally lead to an increase being present. You wouldn’t bother queuing at the bread shop if there was a big sign saying there was no bread.
It is a sign of the growing desperation many people face that the number of households in temporary accommodation continues to rise despite the increasing harshness of the system and the fact that many more people are found accommodation away from their home area. At the end of March, 58,520 households were in temporary accommodation. Of these, 12,430 were in TA in another local authority area, an increase of 36% from the previous year. 93% of these were from London, an increase of 40% in a single year. The number staying in TA for more than 2 years has also increased from 9% to 11% in one year. Between them, the 58,520 households contained 80,560 children or expected children.
The fastest rising reason for homelessness is the end of a private tenancy, now responsible for 27% of homelessness – up 14% in a single year.
The fact that 80,000 children are living in temporary accommodation, many of them away from their home area, should be seen as a national disgrace. It should be dominating domestic news. When Michael Gove says ‘nothing should be too good for the children of this country’ he apparently can’t mean the children of homeless families.