Under pressure

The latest homelessness figures confirm some disturbing trends over the last five years in why people lose their home and what happens to them once they get help.

The statistics for England published by the DCLG on Wednesday run up to the end of 2014/15 and so allow the record the coalition to be assessed for the first time. The headline measure of households accepted as homeless (unintentionally homeless and in priority need) rose 36 per cent between 2009/10 (the year before the coalition took power) and 2014/15 to 54,000.

But this figure is heavily influenced by other government policies, not just the coalition’s reforms of the system but the last Labour government’s too. For example, the acceptances figure was more than double what it is now in the early 2000s, before prevention and options approaches were widely adopted by local authorities.

As the UK Housing Review briefing pointed out on Monday, combined acceptances and prevention cases (not published yet) are likely to top 300,000 in 2014/15 compared to just over 200,000 in 2009/10. And even these figures take no account of hidden homelessness, whether it’s overcrowding or concealed households or single people and childless couples who do not have priority or rough sleeping.

Bearing in mind those limitations, this week’s official figures still reveal the severe pressure the system is under. The fastest-growing reason for becoming homeless in the last five years was the ending of an assured shorthold tenancy. The number of households affected more than trebled and these private renters losing their home accounted for 29 per cent of acceptances in 2014/15 compared to just 11 per cent in 2009/10.

In London the contrast is even more stark, with the numbers homeless because of loss of an AST rising more than sevenfold in the last five years and accounting for 39 per cent of acceptances, up from 10 per cent.

Once accepted as homeless, the number of families are in temporary accommodation (64,610 in the first quarter of 2015) is up 26 per cent on five years ago. The number of them in bed and breakfast has more than doubled. Again the effects are greatest in London.

The graph below shows the even steeper increase in the measure that should really ring the alarm bells in government: the number of families with children in bed and breakfast for longer than the legal limit of six weeks:

 6 weeks

These figures are still lower than in the early 2000s but concerted action by the last government had almost eradicated the problem by the time it left office. The 2015 Q1 total of 920 is nine times what it was in the first quarter of 2010. This is despite successive housing ministers describing any use of B&B for more than the legal limit as ‘unacceptable’ and even providing extra money to the worst affected local authorities. The numbers did fall for a while but now they’re back up again and still rising. Has government started to accept the unacceptable?

It goes without saying that the problem is again worst in London, which has around 60 per cent of cases. However, the stats also show that just five local authorities accounted for half of all unlawful B&B stays for families with children: Tower Hamlets, Newham, Reading, Croydon and Harrow.

The second graph shows the remorseless rise in homeless households in temporary accommodation in another local authority district as councils struggle to find any within their own borders:

out of area

The total for England as a whole has more than trebled in the last five years and doubled in the last three. The latest quarterly total is the highest in stats going back to 1998. London local authorities accounted for 93 per cent of cases in the first quarter of 2015. Westminster found itself on the wrong end of a High Court ruling on its policy earlier this week.

If that’s the record of the coalition, what are the prospects for the new Conservative government? Homelessness is about much more than just welfare reform but these increases have happened at a time of rising employment. With more benefit cuts on the way (the £23,000 benefit cap and more to be spelt out in the Budget in two weeks) and Iain Duncan Smith saying what happens next is up to landlords, it’s hard not to conclude that things are going to get worse. Potentially much worse.

As Jon Sparkes of Crisis puts it:

‘England is sleepwalking into a homelessness crisis, and we’ve yet to hear what our new Government intends to do about it. Local authorities are in an impossible situation. We need decisive political action to fix our broken private rented sector, along with radical solutions to tackle the severe shortage of affordable homes. At the same time, we must have a safety net that genuinely protects tenants struggling to make ends meet.’

Originally posted on June 24 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

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