Six ways the government is failing to end homelessness

The ten-year target set by homeless charities looks impossible under current Tory policy.

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The homelessness charity Crisis has come up with a comprehensive plan for ending homelessness in the UK within ten years.

It’s worth reading the full plan, called “Everybody In”, which uses advice from organisations and experts in Britain and overseas to try and house the rising number of people without homes and rough-sleeping in the UK.

A lot of the plan, unsurprisingly, focuses on building social housing.

The BBC has picked out its key recommendations, and it looks like the government has a lot of catching up to do.

I measured each recommendation up with what the state has in place so far – and it makes for a grim picture of the next decade, unless something changes:

100,500 social homes to be built annually for the next 15 years to meet the needs of the homeless and those on low incomes

In 2015, the government promised to build one million new homes by 2020. It has been meeting this pledge, but the number of houses classed as social housing or “affordable” housing (which can be rented for up to 80 per cent of the market rate) remained stubbornly low. In 2016/17, only 19 per cent of new homes built were affordable.

When the Chancellor pledged 300,000 new homes a year in England in his budget last November, only £2bn of the £44bn made available (hardly any of it was new money) was towards subsidised homes for social rent – nowhere near enough. The homelessness charity Shelter recently discovered that there were 1.15 million households on waiting lists for council houses last year, finding a shortfall of 800,000 homes.

So it doesn’t look good so far.

After announcing that extra £2bn last year for house-building, Theresa May said there’s now almost £9bn worth of money available to councils and housing associations to build affordable and social housing.

But that blur of “affordable” with social housing doesn’t give an idea of how many would be let out at social rents, and it’s nowhere near enough for Crisis’s plan: that extra £2bn can pay for 25,000 “homes for social rent” over five years.

A national roll-out of Housing First, which aims to provide more than 18,000 homeless people with homes and a package of specialised support

Housing First is a service that puts access to stable accommodation first – before requiring the individual to address other needs. This approach started out in New York, with the Pathways to Housing organisation in 1992 – and it has been adopted as a key national homelessness strategy in other countries, including France, Finland and Denmark.

There are over 30 Housing First services across the UK, but it’s patchy and funded in different ways – either through a local authority, homelessness charities or other homeless support services. In November last year, central government provided £23m to pilot Housing First in Liverpool, Manchester and the West Midlands.

So it exists, but there is no national plan.

Better rights for private renters

The Tories did signal a change in attitude towards renters last year, with then housing secretary Sajid Javid announcing new measures to force landlords to join a redress scheme (intended to empower renters to challenge exploitative fees and poor treatment) as well as letting agents to be registered – for proper professional oversight.

They are banning letting agent fees paid by tenants, and capping deposits at a maximum of six weeks rent (a cap that campaigners found disappointingly high).

Plus, last November’s Budget had the government consulting on how to incentivise landlords to offer longer tenancies.

This is on top of curbing the buy-to-let market in recent years, with a stamp duty surcharge on buy-to-let properties and second homes introduced in 2016, and cuts to tax relief on mortgage interest from 2017.

It’s the right direction but nowhere near enough – all it really does is acknowledge rogue landlords are a problem. In terms of renters’ rights, there is little here by way of reform.

Again, the answer lies in building more housing (millennial renters’ access to social housing has plummeted with the likelihood of home ownership). But there should also be tax reforms to clampdown on owning multiple homes, and a way to make rent affordable (for example: local rent caps, a new levy on landlords to go towards social housing, energy efficiency improvement on homes, a regulated housing market with controlled rents and limited house price rises).

A reform to housing benefit, to protect people once they have been housed

Recent changes to housing benefit have made it more likely that people will be homeless. Last year, the government removed 18- to 21-year-olds’ automatic eligibility to housing benefit, putting the onus on young people to prove to the Jobcentre that they are entitled to claim it.

If they can’t prove it, they are forced to stay at home – or, if they live in volatile households, to leave with nowhere to go. Campaigners warned this would increase homelessness. Although young people can apply for exemptions, they may not be able to, or even know of their existence – or they may need to leave their living situation immediately in the case of violence or being kicked out.

So that needs to change.

Plus, the housing element under Universal Credit has put landlords off renting their properties out to claimants – mainly because of the delay in receiving the new benefit (a wait is built into the system, but glitches have also caused long delays, throwing claimants into rent arrears). This is putting benefit claimants who are moved onto Universal Credit in a precarious situation, as they are either evicted due to missed rent, or denied a tenancy in the first place.

Hospitals, prisons, the care system, and other parts of the state to be legally required to help find homes for those leaving their care

Social services are under increasing strain, as councils’ budgets are stretched to breaking point (real-terms funding for local authorities has been cut by 49 per cent since David Cameron took office as prime minister). This makes it difficult for those leaving state institutions to be rehoused and therefore rehabilitated back into regular day-to-day life.

Hospitals, prisons and care services would be able to avoid as many readmissions if they had a part in securing housing for their charges. But really, it’s the role of a social sector that has been cut to ribbons – a reversal of damaging austerity measures like this would take the strain off hospitals, etc.

Jobcentres to have homelessness specialists

Integrating housing and employment support for homeless people at the Jobcentre would help tackle the problem, and would also allow work coaches to understand circumstances that make it difficult to seek work, hold down a job, or even attend appointments at the Jobcentre (a failure to do so often results in punitive sanctions).

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.