Boosts to homeless outreach will only go so far in a broken system

The government says it will invest an extra £3m in helping homeless people to find jobs and housing and access benefits.

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At the weekend the government announced it would be spending £3m to boost funding for homeless outreach through the Job Centre. The stated aim is to help homeless people to find employment and housing, and access benefits. With outreach services having been badly hit by austerity – particularly in the areas that need it most like drug and alcohol misuse – this is no bad thing in and of itself. The problem is that outreach services are only as good as the system people are being guided through. 

Shortages of social housing mean a long wait for many homeless people in hostels or temporary accommodation. The quality and condition of both has been subject to a series of damning investigations. Last year a BBC report revealed that in Harlow families with young children were housed in a converted office block that has been compared to a “human warehouse”, alongside people with multiple and complex needs like substance issues and severe mental health conditions.

A recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme followed the lives of homeless pregnant women who were trying to get decent housing. The programme also commissioned research that found 99.7 per cent of midwives had treated homeless mothers in the last six months. These are some of the 84,740 households (including 126,020 children) in temporary accommodation as of the end of last year, according to official figures.

Universal credit and other welfare reforms mean people claiming it have fewer options to get housing than before. Wherever it has been rolled out, people report delays and a complex system that is quick to sanction and hard for vulnerable people to navigate.

A four-year freeze on increases in the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate of housing benefit means the gap between what people earn and the affordability of their home has grown, and while it will be allowed to rise in line with inflation from April, it will still not rise with the cost of housing. A report published by the Scottish government last week said that Scottish families claiming housing benefits were £64 a week worse off after £300m was cut in UK welfare spending in Scotland .

Even providing outreach itself can be problematic, with a number of past examples of assistance coming with strings attached. Several government schemes to link homeless outreach with immigration enforcement have led to bitter recriminations and a loss of trust among homeless people. Last year a project to place Home Office employees in community spaces such as churches and Sikh gurdwaras to provide immigration “advice” was revealed to be pushing so-called “voluntary removal”, according to a Guardian investigation.

Between 2010 and 2016, outreach provided by the charity St Mungo’s , and with the support of the London Assembly, worked with the Home Office to remove rough sleepers who were EU nationals.  One outreach team was found to have continued the policy into 2017.

Similarly, the approach to outreach can be very different depending on where you happen to be. In 2018 I was part of an investigation, supported by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, into the deaths of several homeless people in the town of Northampton. From our interviews with rough sleepers and voluntary sector organisations, we found the council had adopted a harsh, even punitive, approach to rough sleepers.

There were allegations of tents being removed and volunteer outreach being actively discouraged in order to force some people into services and keep others out of them. Other councils have established no rough-sleeper zones using public space protection orders to effectively criminalise rough sleeping.

More outreach is definitely part of the solution, but it will do little without the social housing, quality support for people with complex issues like mental health problems and substance misuse, and a welfare system that enables people to access decent housing. On top of that, the government needs to fulfil its promise to end no-fault evictions, which may stem the flow of people made homeless in the first place.

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman