The rise of working homelessnessPosted: July 23, 2018
Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on July 23.
Ever since 2010 the government has assumed that work is the solution to poverty and problems with housing.
It’s an assumption that underpins universal credit and it’s been nourished by a steady drip of propaganda from right-wing think tanks and newspapers about the alleged role of social housing in encouraging worklessness.
Anyone with experience of the benefits system knows that this is at best a simplistic and at worst a dangerously inaccurate interpretation of what is going on.
For all the government’s proclamations of a ‘jobs miracle’, work alone is not a guaranteed route out of poverty or poor housing or even, it now seems, homelessness.
A report out today from Shelter shows a 73% rise in the number of families who are in work but homeless and in temporary accommodation over the last five years: from 19,000 in 2013 to 33,000 in 2017.
The number of families in temporary accommodation has of course grown exponentially over the same period – and there have been plenty of individual stories about mothers forced to travel miles from their hostel or B&B to their job before returning home to share a room with their kids.
However, the Shelter research shows that working households now account for more than half (55%) of the total number of homeless families in temporary accommodation compared to 45% in 2013.
That should not come as a surprise given all that has happened since 2010 and it should not be one to the Department of Work and Pensions given that it comes from its own date released under Freedom of Information requests.
However, in the week the social housing green paper is due to be launched it should make ministers think through the implications carefully.
While much of the green paper emphasis will, rightly, be on empowering existing tenants and holding landlords to account, this is a powerful reminder of the other side of the coin: finding safe, genuinely affordable homes for tenants who desperately need them.
Shelter argues that the trend in working homelessness is ‘due to a combination of high private rents, the on-going freeze on housing benefit and a chronic lack of social homes’.
Chief executive Polly Neate argues that:
‘We cannot allow struggling families to slip through the cracks created by our housing crisis – the government musturgentlycome up with a new plan for social housing that delivers the genuinely affordable homes we desperately need. Our commission on the future of social housing will be calling for bold solutions, because more of the same is simplynot good enough.’
The issues for housing are exacerbated by trends in the labour market, with growth in jobs heavily concentrated in insecure zero and limited hours contract and self-employment.
As I blogged last week, the latest English Housing Survey shows that working households already in social housing are facing similar pressures even as levels of employment grow: more than half of social tenants receiving housing benefit are now in work; factors like losing hours or overtime are the fastest rising reason for rent arrears; and levels of self-employment have risen rapidly.
And lurking not very far in the future is a factor that will make things even worse: big cuts in tax credits for working families that caused outragewhen they were proposed in 2015 were delayed rather than scrapped.
Existing recipients of working tax credits will get transitional protection under universal credit once full service is available in all areas – though they could still lose it if their circumstances change significantly.
But many new claimants will find universal credit much less generous than tax credits: the Resolution Foundation calculated last year that working families will be an average of £625 a year worse off, with 1.1m families with two parents in work losing up to £2,800.
With employment at record levels, it’s time to acknowledge that worklessness is no longer the problem and that work alone will not provide a route out of poverty and insecurity.
The rise of working homelessness is the clearest sign yet that people in insecure work with low and volatile incomes desperately need secure housing at genuinely affordable rents.
Here’s hoping the social housing green paper takes note.