Crisis warns of surge in homelessness

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on August 10. 

If the true scale of homelessness revealed in a report for Crisis is shocking enough now, try looking at the projections for the future.

The report by Professor Glen Bramley of Heriot Watt University estimates that what it calls ‘core homelessness’ affected 160,000 households in 2016, an increase of a third since 2011.

That means that at any one time:

  • 9,100 people were sleeping rough
  • 68,300 households were sofa surfing
  • 19,300 households were living in unsuitable temporary accommodation
  • 37,200 households were living in hostels
  • 26,000 households were living in other circumstances, including:
    • 8,900 households sleeping in tents, cars or on public transport
    • 12,100 households living in squats
    • 5,000 households in women’s refuges or winter night shelters.

The report estimates that these include 57,000 families including 82,000 adults and 50,000 children, so that the total core homeless population is 236,000.

However, the total is forecast to rise by 76% in the next decade. After a steady rise to 167,000 households by 2021 the total is expected to accelerate over the to 238,000 by 2031 and 392,000 by 2041.

As the graph shows, the increases are expected to be especially sharp in unsuitable temporary accommodation, which includes bed and breakfast accommodation and out of area placements.

Unsuitable temporary accommodation is seen as a barometer of pressure on the local housing system. Use of it doubled between 2011 and 2016 and it is forecast to double again by 2031 and by 2041 it could be ten times what it was in 2011.

Big increases are also forecast in rough sleeping, sofa surfing and other forms of core homelessness, such as sleeping in cars and tents and on public transport.

The only category that fell between 2011 and 2016 was hostels, refuges and shelters and use is forecast to stay constant over the next 25 years. But that is because supply is fixed rather than being a reflection of demand.

Crisis, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is inviting everyone to join its Everybody In campaign to build a national movement for permanent change.

The report says the most important driver of homelessness is poverty, followed by the availability and affordability of potentially accessible housing, demographics, funding and the extent to which local authorities engage in homelessness prevention.

Forecasts are of course the result of the assumptions built into them but these reflect a relatively benign medium-term scenario for the economy and labour market and a leveling off in core homelessness before it starts to increase rapidly again in the 2020s and beyond.

In face of the current crisis, national and local government politicians might think that relieves some of the immediate pressure on them but they should see it instead as a reason to act now.

The report also conducted ‘what if’ tests on different policies that could be adopted to counter the rise in core homelessness.

First up is a halt to welfare cuts already planned up to 2021 and any more afterwards. That would mean core homelessness would be 6.5% lower by 2021 and 21% by 2026-31.

Second, a 60% increase in housing supply including social and affordable homes skewed towards the south of England. This would cut core homelessness by 9% by 2026 and 15% by 2031.

Third, measures to promote convergence in economic growth across the country would cut core homelessness by 7% by 2026 and 25% by 2036.

All three of those are of course policy choices for central government that would involve big changes in current policy.

And the second point is not lost on local councils. Cllr Judith Blake, housing spokesperson at the Local Government Association, said:

‘There is no substitute for a renaissance in council house building if we’re to truly address the rising homelessness we face as a nation. For that to happen, government needs to allow councils to borrow to invest in genuinely affordable housing, and to keep all of their receipts from Right to Buy sales, so that money can be reinvested into delivering genuinely affordable homes.’

National politicians are therefore likely to be most keen on the third option – maximal prevention – but they should beware of complacency.

The report forecasts that if all local authorities matched those with the most homelessness prevention activity, core homelessness could fall by 22% by 2021 and 27% from 2026.

The Homelessness Reduction Act is now on the statute book in England following the success of similar legislation in Wales.

However, it would be dangerous to assume that legislation alone will do the trick.

As Tamsin Stirling blogged this week, the experience in Wales is that culture change, getting everybody working together to the same ends, was just as important as a new law. It remains to be seen whether that will be so possible in England.

And that point applies just as much to broader policy choices. We already have a homelessness crisis and this report indicates that it will get even worse under current policies.

Prevention work may slow down the rate of increase but the impact will be limited without investment in homes and other measures to tackle poverty.

The upside is that ever-rising homelessness is not inevitable if we work together and make the right choices. But are we ready to do it?

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