Wake-up call

Originally published on December 15 on my blog for Inside Housing

If 2016 proves to be the year that the government finally woke up to the homelessness crisis, official figures released on Thursday show its true scale.

The latest statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government show 14,930 households were accepted as homeless in the June to September quarter. The good news is that this is down 1% on the previous three months. The bad news is that it’s up 2% on 2015 and 45% on 2010.

Remember this is only the most visible part of the crisis – the families who are accepted as homeless and in priority need by local authorities – and that it is just the start of a wait for permanent accommodation.

That wait goes on for those already accepted as homeless. The figures also show that 74,630 households, including 117,520 children, were in temporary accommodation at the end of September. That’s up 9% on 2015 and 45% on 2010.

And the increases are greatest in the worst and least permanent forms of temporary accommodation. There were 6,680 households in bed and breakfasts, including 3,390 families with children: up 13% on 2015 and more than five times the figure in 2010.

Most shockingly of all, there were 1,300 families with children who had been in bed and breakfasts for more than the six-week legal limit. That’s up 24% on the same quarter in 2015 and is an incredible 13 times higher than in the quarter before the election of the coalition government in 2010.

The fact that this increase has happened despite the law and despite regular exhortations to local councils from successive housing ministers is the result of pressure coming to a head in the rest of the housing system.

This is most evident in the private rented sector, with the end of an assured shorthold tenancy now accounting for a third of homeless acceptances. However, there are a host of other pressures in the system and these official figures only show one form of homelessness.

All of this and much more besides was covered in an opposition day debate on homelessness on Wednesday. This was notable not just for the well-argued case put by shadow housing minister John Healey and other opposition MPs, but also for contributions from housing minister Gavin Barwell and several Conservative MPs. There is also cross-party support for Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill, which will introduce a new prevention duty and give more help to single people, and is currently at its committee stage in the Commons.

The debate did feature the usual party political point-scoring and use of statistics. The recent peak in homeless acceptances and families in bed and breakfasts was in 2003, when the last Labour government introduced a new homelessness prevention system. But the figures then fell dramatically until they started to rise again under the coalition from 2011, so it all depends which comparison you use.

However, this was also a rare opposition day debate in which the opposition put forward a new policy of its own (to end rough sleeping within the first term of a Labour government) and a government minister admitted that its record was less than perfect.

Housing minister Gavin Barwell called homelessness “a moral stain” that must be tackled and said the Homelessness Reduction Bill would broaden the safety net and ensure that “single people do not fall through the gaps”.

Alongside his defence of the government’s record, including on funding homelessness service, the minister also had a surprising confession that his opposite number “was right on one statistic at least”:

“The 2015-16 figures on affordable housing were very low – unacceptably low. That was because we finished one programme the previous year and the new programme was late starting. That is a feeble excuse, and the secretary of state and I are determined to ensure it does not happen again.”

It was a welcome piece of candour but when it suits him Barwell seems quite prepared to blame decisions by previous governments even when they were Conservative or Conservative-led.

For example, he hailed the new government’s “fresh approach to supported housing, ensuring that the local housing allowances will not apply” without quite mentioning which party proposed the Local Housing Allowance cap in the first place.

Other Conservative MPs were equally passionate. Will Quince asked whether we had “lost our humanity” when councils of all political colours up and down the country were fining people for being homeless and installing spikes in doorways to stop rough sleeping.

David Mackintosh told of walking over Westminster Bridge to speak at a homelessness conference the morning after a sleep-out for a homelessness charity:

“As I walked over with my assistant, we both saw that a homeless person was on the street, but it was clear to us that they had sadly passed away. I do not know the name of that person, who they were or where they came from, but I know that while I was sleeping rough just a few miles away, this homeless person had been out in the cold and the wet, and died in the sight of parliament and in earshot of Big Ben.”

That story chimes with a more recent one told by Labour’s Jack Dromey of a young man sleeping rough in central Birmingham who froze to death one night at the end of November. But he said this had to be seen in the context of huge cuts to Birmingham’s funding from central government.

“If the government go ahead with the biggest cuts to any council in local government history, particularly cuts to supported housing, it will mean – in the words of Alan Fraser, the chief executive of the YMCA – that ‘more will die’,” he said. “Mark Rogers, chief executive of Birmingham City Council, said there will be ‘catastrophic consequences’.”

And other opposition MPs queued up to put the rise in homelessness in the context of the cuts in housing investment, housing support and housing benefit seen since 2010 and those that are yet to come.

Lib Dem Tom Brake questioned the impact of housing benefit cuts for the under-21s: “If just 140 extra young people are made homeless as a result of the change, it will cost more than the government will save.”

Labour’s Helen Hayes told of meeting a former constituent who was evicted from her private rented home while she was being treated for cancer.

“She was moved out of my constituency into temporary accommodation – and two years later, she is still there. She said to me, ‘I saw something about homelessness on the news this morning. Is that about people like me? Are they going to do something?’.”

She warned that the government must not be complacent and think it can tick the box by supporting the Homelessness Reduction Bill:

“Absolutely critical to the success of this bill is the government’s commitment to resource it and the level of the resource that they provide. We are almost at the end of the committee stage of the bill, but we still do not know how or at what level the government will resource councils to implement the new duties and burdens that the bill can introduce.”

Communities minister Marcus Jones summarised the debate and the cross-party concern about homelessness in his closing speech but he did not give a commitment on funding.

Westminster may have woken up to the scale of the problem but pressures in the rest of the housing system still seem set to increase homelessness rather than reduce it.

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