The political choices on homelessness

Everyone In was one of the few success stories in housing policy this century but all that progress in tackling homelessness is about to go into reverse.

The stark warning in the latest Homelessness Monitor for England from Crisis is that levels of core homelessness will have gone up by a third between 2019 and 2024 if nothing changes.

If the reasons for the forecast are not hard to guess, the contrast with the progress made at the start of the pandemic when 37,000 people sleeping rough or at risk of doing so were given accommodation makes this even more depressing. So too the contrast between England and the continuing ambitions of devolved governments elsewhere in Britain to end homelessness altogether.   

Rough sleeping was down 33 per cent and sofa surfing down 11 per cent in England in 2020 after that extraordinary initial effort under Everyone In but it soon morphed from a policy into branding for an initiative.

The result was that core homelessness (which means the most acute forms of homelessness including rough sleeping, sofa surfing and being in temporary accommodation) was also down 5 per cent on 2019 levels at 203,400 in 2020.

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, another success story, also helped single homeless households, although the report points to weaknesses including continued lack of entitlement to accommodation for some groups (another issue being addressed elsewhere but not England).

So the good news is that the pandemic saw a welcome interruption in the upward trend in homelessness since 2012.

That’s backed up by the latest figures published this week showing that the number of rough sleepers fell for the fourth year in a row in the government’s latest annual snapshot survey – and by the repeal of the Vagrancy Act.

The bad news is that most of the support introduced during the pandemic has since been reversed, with the uplift withdrawn, LHA rates refrozen despite rising rents and mounting concern that evictions could rise sharply in 2022.

As one local council officer put it to the researchers: ‘Once the courts start fully dealing with their backlogs, and landlords start to issue NTQs [Notices to Quit] again, plus furlough ending and the uplift ending, we are expecting a tidal wave, to put it mildly. It is going to be a very, very busy couple of years. The impact of the pandemic is just beginning for homelessness services I feel.’

This will be happening just at the point when the cost of living crisis starts to bite, with the poorest families facing not just soaring energy bills and rising prices but real-terms cuts in benefits as a result.

Analysis published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week says that the decision to raise benefits by 3.1 per cent in April while inflation is running at 7 per cent will leave nine million families £500 a year worse off on average.

They were of course already £1,000 a year worse off thanks to the end of the Universal Credit uplift last October.

And with energy bills likely to rise even further as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government’s limited package of help will go even less far.

This is the context for the coming rise in homelessness. Researchers for the Homelessness Monitor from Heriot-Watt University and the University of New South Wales predict that on current trends overall core homelessness is likely to be a third higher in 2024 than it was in 2019:

Within that total, there will be large increases in sofa surfing and rough sleeping and especially steep rises in London and a substantial rise is possible this year.

The year 2024 is, of course, politically significant because of the government’s manifesto promise to ‘end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament’ and there is no chance it will be met unless something changes.

However, these trends are not inevitable. The Homelessness Monitor considers alternative policy scenarios and the impact of policies to tackle destitution, improve homelessness prevention and boost social housing supply.

This graph shows the impact of different measures on that forecast of levels of core homelessness in the short, medium and long term. Increases in welfare payments and rehousing quotas for core homeless households would deliver the biggest reductions up to 2026, while raising LHA and improvements to Housing First rank alongside them by 2041:

The experience of the pandemic clearly shows that homelessness, and all the human and financial costs that go with it, can be significantly reduced with the right policies.

It also shows that the future increases forecast in the Homelessness Monitor are not inevitable – but with the wrong policies they come down to political choices.   


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