Funding the end of rough sleeping

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 19.

The row over rough sleeping looks like it could be a preview of many more to come over the housing and homelessness part of the government’s response to Coronavirus.

It began on Thursday night, when Jen Williams of the Manchester Evening News reported that the Everyone In scheme was being ‘wound down’ and scrapped. This was based on a leak of an internal report to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority that central government had ‘drawn a line’ under the scheme.

Cue a furious response from the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHLCG) that went well beyond a denial.

The full retort went up on the new MHCLG media blog, which seems reserved for stories that have particularly annoyed ministers or special advisers or both.

The post used the technique of making its own interpretations of claims made in the original article and expressing outrage about them.

The story ‘inaccurately suggests that the government is winding up its support for rough sleepers helped off the streets during the coronavirus pandemic,’ said the blog. ‘This is simply wrong.’

And for good measure: ‘Any suggestion that the government is reneging on the commitment set out at the start of this national emergency is entirely wrong.’

Neither suggestion was made in a story based on a report that reflected the realities facing councils that want to keep rough sleepers off the streets within budgets squeezed by the impacts of Coronavirus.

Under the scheme, the government directed local authorities to house all rough sleepers in safe accommodation, using hotels if need be.

That meant that in the space of a weekend at the end of March the government had seemingly achieved its manifesto commitment of ending rough sleeping by the end of the current parliament.

The truth was always going to be more complicated, first because there will always be rough sleepers who refuse or find it difficult to come in off the streets.

Second, even if you could house all existing rough sleepers, pressures in the housing system mean there will always be newly homeless people with nowhere to go. In London, for example, councils estimate they have accommodated 3,600 people but that there are 500 still on the streets at any one time, and not the same 500 in any particular week.

And, as Lucie Heath reports in the current edition of Inside Housing, a similar picture is emerging around the country.

Third, the £3.2 million of specific funding for Everyone In was only ever enough for the very short term: if 5,400 rough sleepers have been accommodated it works out at around £600 each, which does not pay hotel bills for very long.

The longer-term response is meant to be funded by the second of two tranches of £1.6 billion of extra funding that MHCLG has awarded to ‘stand behind’ local authorities and cover their increased Coronavirus costs.

But that is not remotely enough to make up for the actual impact of the crisis, not just in increased costs but in revenue lost from business rates, council tax, car parking, and all the other services that they charge for.

By complete coincidence, a Guardian editorial and a series of tweets on this situation by Lewis Goodall of Newsnight were the subject of the previous furious rebuttals on the MHCLG media blog.

What all this means in practice is a situation with which local councils have become wearily familiar over the last decade: responsibilities devolved from central government without the money to implement them.

If we are to end rough sleeping then local councils have to play a key role and make the work part of their wider housing responsibilities, finding move-on accommodation, working with private landlords and housing associations and building affordable housing.

But as things currently stand they will have to fund this work from their own resources without a dedicated budget at a time when some are so financially stretched that they are considering declaring themselves insolvent.

This goes well beyond the usual shadow boxing between central and local government over budgets and that particular warning comes from the Conservative-controlled County Councils Network.

The point to keep in mind is that the crisis has shown that ‘ending’ rough sleeping need not cost that much even before you consider long-term savings from helping people to put their lives back together.

In evidence to the Housing Communities and Local Government Committee last week, Jon Sparkes of Crisis estimated the cost of rehousing the 5,400 people temporarily accommodated under Everyone In at £97 million, incuding housing benefit and support costs.  

The second phase of the work is being led by Dame Louise Casey, who has vast experience in work on homelessness that includes heading up the successful work of the Rough Sleepers’ Unit in the late 1990s.

That work will be done in the face of pressures that are building up in the rest of the housing system that will make homelessness worse: the cliff edge on evictions at the end of June; a wave of unemployment when temporary government support ends; and the huge drop in income facing benefit claimants when (on current plans) temporary increases in universal credit and local housing allowance expire next April.

If the government really wants to build on what has been a success story up to now it needs to spend more time finding a dedicated budget to back it up and less pretending that the issue of what happens next does not exist and criticising journalists for doing their job.


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