In Britain, homelessness is not going away in 2022. If anything, things will get worse. There are many reasons.
Some are about housing supply, some about housing and other living costs and there are also issues about funding and provision of support. Seriously addressing homelessness takes commitment and also cross department working and cooperation in government. It also requires investment; but, arguably, not as much as not addressing it.
Some of the problems we have currently include:
What could be done?
There’s constant talk and evidence of there being insufficient housing in the UK, to the extent that it’s impossible to argue against. Certainly there’s far too little affordable housing.
We know the factors: for many years a growing population; an aging population, with more under-occupancy; too little building; many second homes. All this means that house prices and rents in much of the UK are high and many people struggle to find and afford somewhere to live.
And it’s got worse. Pandemic lockdowns haven’t slowed homelessness. Numbers of (single) people sleeping rough have been rising in Plymouth and across much of the country in recent months; and we’re seeing families presenting with nowhere to go. As the housing boom has continued this year, not just house prices but rents have risen dramatically. People are out-bidding each other for tenancies. It’s unheard of.
One reason for that is what might be called internal migration: people moving areas as they find they can work from home and no longer need to be in big cities. It means that some places are seeing more competition than ever for housing, with the consequent increase in prices. That’s definitely and visibly happened in Devon and Cornwall.
It’s therefore even harder for people on lower incomes to secure properties: they often can’t meet the rent levels now.
The need for more affordable accommodation is urgent. In the short term, government should be addressing the fact that benefits are too low in the current market – Local Housing Allowance must rise. Local councils, housing associations, homelessness charities and others must look what they can do, too, including purchasing or leasing properties to rent at reasonable rates.
But we also need a government task force to work with businesses and councils on under-used buildings. Even prior to the pandemic we have had city and town centres with ever more vacant shop units. Now working from home will be part of many people’s lives, to the extent that businesses can start to review how much space they need. Some are already reducing or giving up leases. This is a chance to convert under-used and un-used buildings into housing, bringing people back into centres and giving them homes.
When you’re in a crisis, it may well be time to be radical.
Inevitably, for homelessness charities a constant focus is often on helping people into, or at least towards, having their own settled housing. We talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how shelter is essential for everyone. Because it is. For many reasons, it’s vital. Yet as a country we have a confused relationship with housing, seeing it as something that everyone must have, at the same time as being a resource to be controlled, an investment. House prices and rents are high in the UK, a problem exacerbated by lack of supply, which can be a boon for property owners but a curse for others.
We can look at the many reasons why supply is limited and list some obvious ones: growing population; too little building and development; too much demand in certain geographical areas; an aging population with many homes arguably under-occupied. There are many other factors, too.
But what matters is the result: too little affordable accommodation. Obviously, welfare benefits not properly covering the costs of private rent in many cases is a huge issue. Alongside that, the social housing sector has changed over time, with many housing associations more clearly balancing social purpose against financial benefit and community needs in ways that mean many homeless people find it harder to secure their own social housing properties. That may be an unintended result but it is nevertheless one.
So Britain undoubtedly needs more affordable accommodation, both social and privately rented, and landlords willing to house people with fewer resources: those on limited incomes, without guarantors – people who actually most need that stability.
That’s why we at Path are, in our modest way, are starting to provide tenancies. We have run temporary accommodation for several years, something we value but which is a stepping stone for our residents as we try to help them move into their own longer term home. What that means for many is moving from one share housed in the community, run by us and with regular support, to another where – when ready - they live more independently.
For us, it’s positive – the ‘outcome’ we hope to help people achieve - and we are focussed on maintaining that. But there is still an under-supply of good quality, affordable accommodation. So we are increasing what we provide, ourselves. Numbers are small but our plan is to have 30 rooms in Plymouth by the end of this year that we run as tenancies; and 50 by the end of 2022. Ultimately, our view is that if others aren’t always prioritising people who are homeless for housing, then it’s for us and other homelessness charities to. We don’t have the resources that housing associations can muster but sitting on our hands is no longer an option; and we welcome the opportunity to contribute in this way.
Of course, an even bigger gap is one bedroom (self-contained) accommodation: it is far too scarce. But that’s another challenge. Still, one we are interested in contributing to addressing, if and when we can. First we’re providing shared houses.
10 October is World Homeless day, a chance to reflect on homelessness, and those affected, to look at responses to it and to commit to working together to end it.
In Plymouth, key homeless services are now commissioned by Plymouth City Council through The Plymouth Alliance. They include rough sleeper work, hostels, other temporary accommodation, housing support, private rented access and more: many organisations work together to respond to homelessness, to minimise its impact and help people into settled housing.
Path, as a homelessness charity and as part of the Plymouth Alliance, is involved with people at every stage of homelessness, from those sleeping rough, through to those who need support to stay in their own accommodation.
But there is always more to do and services need to develop all the time, something we are jointly committed to. That’s especially true when the unexpected occurs, such as the Covid pandemic.
Therefore on the Alliance website there are articles about what we collectively did during lockdown, alongside information about what we and other partners do. People can also read about the Make A Change scheme, where people can donate money to directly help those in need.
So, for us, World Homeless Day is a chance to reflect on what’s being done, to look at what else is needed and to look at how we keep joining up and improving what we do.
Life’s complicated and none of us know what’s around the corner. But we do know that it’s harder for people with fewer resources (less money, less security) to cope with difficult events. We also know that the biggest determining factor in homelessness is childhood poverty. In other words, people who grew up poor are far more likely to experience homelessness. And homelessness marginalises people, makes it hard for them to have control of their lives and affects health and well-being.
That’s why services such as private rented access schemes are so important: sometimes people just need some practical support to gain a new home. But some people need more than that; they need more help, someone alongside them as they try to deal with the complexities of modern life, someone to advocate for them and maybe motivate them at times, too.
The concept of ‘housing support’ is based around the belief that providing individual support to people who are marginalised and / or vulnerable to homelessness can ultimately enable them to live independently; and that living independently is the goal we want for as many people as possible. Support features all of those things and more: advocacy, motivational work, and gaining access to other services and options. And it fully accepts that life isn’t the same for everyone, isn’t fair, and that society should provide help at times to enable people to have opportunities.
In the UK there have been various schemes to provide support to help vulnerable people, the most significant being the Supporting People programme* that started in the early 2000s. The essence of that included:
So this kind of support is more than just help to keep or gain housing. It includes an understanding that housing is vital for people to be safe and well; and also that being safe and well is vital for people living independently. Therefore the support tends to be provided by staff members working one to one with the person (or family), in their own home where possible, looking not just at how they keep their home (income, budgeting, responsibilities and rights) but how they spend their time, what they aspire to, their health and their social links.
People may describe this support as holistic, as being part of a social inclusion agenda: that’s all good. But most of all, it’s based around what the person needs and wants, with a foundation in pragmatism and reality. That’s why it works.
But it’s also exactly the kind of service that gets cut (and has been) when money’s tight. That’s a shame. Support of this sort isn’t an add-on or a luxury: it’s a wise and ethical investment in citizens, giving people a fairer chance and also often preventing people from needing other, more expensive interventions from society.
* = A 2009 House of Commons report on the Supporting People programme noted:
The programme has been instrumental in supporting the needs of some of most vulnerable and socially excluded members of society and delivers savings to the Exchequer of £3.4 billion for a £1.6 billion investment per annum. The quality of partnership working under the regime—which has led to the creation of many innovative and person-centred services—is widely recognised, and is regarded as an excellent blueprint for future partnership working in many areas of local service delivery.
As noted elsewhere, the aim of homelessness services is generally to help people find, set up and manage a home of their own. That is what people mostly tell us they want and it has to be what services work for. It may be that some people need support even once they have a home and are settled or they may not; but if they do, services should work with them on that basis.
Equally, it may be that people arrive in their own accommodation after a period in temporary housing. But the focus on helping people work out what they want and be able to secure it for themselves should be paramount. It should underpin all we do.
Most people using services will therefore ultimately go into tenancies, renting properties or rooms from landlords. The landlords may be private or social (housing associations or, in some cases, councils) but generally people will have tenancies where they pay rent for a room, flat or house. What people can afford will, of course, depend on their income.
There tend to be specific things that people need to secure a place of their own:
Many people in society have the resources when they need accommodation to go on-line, search for options and arrange to view them, with the necessary money in place, whether saved or borrowed. Others do not have those resources and so may need help finding suitable accommodation, as well as putting together the package necessary for securing it, as above.
An important issue is often affordability: people may need accommodation that is rented at the amount allowed for by their benefits (or other income). Homelessness services, such as us at Path, may have links with landlords more likely to have affordable accommodation and may also be able to provide support to look at ways to find some of the necessary funds.
For people with other issues, such as addiction or mental health problems, other services they use may be able to do some of that or link them with services that can. It’s important not to pretend that having one’s own accommodation solves every issue; but it does provide the safety and security that most of us consider vital.
So, whatever steps people may take to get there, services should always be helping people move towards and into their own accommodation, with the responsibilities but also all the benefits that brings. And areas need to have services to enable that, such as private rented access schemes, with a range of support relevant to people’s individual needs.
That’s when we end homelessness, one person or household at a time.
Homelessness can be said to be many things. There are huge links with poverty, with mental ill-health and addiction but people who are homeless vary as to who and where they are. Some people will have been given notice to leave a tenancy and need support to get another, some will be leaving institutions and have nowhere to go, some will be street homeless. Their lives, their journeys and their needs will vary significantly. But what they and homelessness services want for them is a home of their own.
There can be different roads to that home for each person, some having time in temporary accommodation first. That may be ‘low support’, such as temporary shared housing, or may be in a hostel or equivalent. That will depend on the person’s needs and the availability of settled accommodation.
Why have temporary accommodation?
The role of temporary accommodation (‘temp’) is to provide more immediate access to housing for people, as finding somewhere more permanent can take time and resources. If people need somewhere to live quickly, then there may be services able to provide temp.
As well as speed / access, temp can provide other things. We can presume that everyone knows what they want and are entitled to; but that’s not always the case. Some people find temp useful as a place and period where they can decide what they want, whether – for instance – they wish to move into more permanent shared housing, if so where and with whom, whether they wish to stay in the City and / or whether there may be options with people they know. It also provides, for some, a breathing space, sometimes enabling people to open up about issues they are getting ready to address.
So, people have a chance to look at what they want and what may be available, perhaps to talk to friends and family and see what may be best. They should also have the opportunity – with support – to sort out their finances and other plans. That may well include looking at how to secure money for a deposit and / or rent in advance for when they move on, along with money for living essentials. For many people, moving into a tenancy is a big and sometimes expensive step.
Temp also, crucially, provides people with experience of living in shared housing in a relatively safe / supported environment. It gives people a chance to try living in shared accommodation (most temp is shared) and to do so in an environment where support is available, with on-site or via visits. That support, and having a flexible and understanding landlord, can be vital. But it also means that people can gain a housing reference, something many landlords want from people.
It’s important that temporary accommodation is therefore:
That means that temporary accommodation gives people who haven’t got anywhere else somewhere to stay, with time and support to sort things out before they move – we hope – into something more permanent.
In some ways, the Coronavirus crisis has changed everything. You could say that it’s forced people, organisations and governments to re-prioritise, to do many things differently, less of other things and much more of what’s needed most right now.
With homelessness, the implications are profound. On one hand, we need to not move people around, to minimise physical contact and keep people inside. Hence the government preventing people from losing their tenancies for three months: we need people to stay where they are.
For people vulnerable to homelessness that may mean getting support to remain in their accommodation, to sort out finances and other needs and to cope with this difficult time. If people are in tenancies, that’s ideal; if they’re in temporary accommodation, it means it’s suddenly less temporary.
Ordinarily services would want to support people into temporary accommodation and out again into somewhere of their own fairly quickly, freeing up that temporary place for someone else. (That’s when people stop being homeless, when they have a place of their own.) But right now that’s harder as we shouldn’t be moving people unless it’s vital. That means that many people in accommodation are staying there. They’ve got somewhere to be and it should be safe.
But it also means that those temporary places are no longer available for ‘new’ people, at the same time when many landlords and agents are understandably following the same advice and not moving people in and out of settled accommodation (tenancies). So, for people who are homeless and don’t have anywhere to stay, there’s much less accommodation available.
The government has rightly said that people should not be sleeping rough right now (if they should ever be), so there needs to be accommodation for all of them, too. And people shouldn’t be in shared rooms, so night shelters that have provided space for people using shared rooms have to close. That means many people needing accommodation where they can have their own rooms. Obviously, that’s something we’d always want for everyone; achieving it is harder.
But Plymouth, like other areas, has worked hard to do that, partner agencies – including the Council – taking on properties and providing support for people. It’s been a huge but successful task.
It doesn’t mean that there’s now no one sleeping rough. There are always people who reject or walk out of accommodation, for whom – we might say – we haven’t yet found the right answer. But there is constant work to help everyone.
Then there are all the people who have been sofa surfing or in other accommodation where the lockdown makes it harder for them to stay there: we’re seeing more people presenting as homeless all the time. So we need accommodation for them, too, a range of people with different lives and different needs.
Again, Path and partner organisations are working hard to provide accommodation, both by negotiating with willing landlords and by taking on more properties, ourselves, so that we have places for people.
It’s an intense time. Not everything is sorted out, by any means, and new challenges keep presenting. But in Plymouth, probably like every area, there’s a lot being done by local services to accommodate and support people, homelessness, housing and also health services working together.
Once this is over we need to be able to keep what’s worked and to keep that focus on having an offer for everyone.