Homelessness rise - shocking or predictable?

Yesterday’s homelessness statistics have confirmed what Shelter’s advisers have reported – more and more people are approaching their council for assistance because they can’t find anywhere affordable to live. Nationwide, the number of households accepted as entitled to assistance increased by 18 per cent last quarter compared to the same time the previous year. London has seen the sharpest increase in homelessness: a 36 per cent rise. But as this handy Guardian map shows it isn’t the only homelessness hotspot.

During 2011, a total of 48,000 households were homeless in England. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, with a series of barriers and tests (application, eligibility, intentionality, priority need) before an acceptance decision is made. That number is shocking enough, but behind every statistic is a person or family who will live with the lasting memory of having to ask for statutory help to obtain a settled home. The figure that hits the hardest is the 69,460 children living in temporary accommodation. The use of bed and breakfast to accommodate children is on the increase, with the number of families accommodated in B&B nearly doubling to 1,310, with nearly a third having been there beyond the six week limit.

It brings to mind Shelter research on the impact of homeless families living in temporary accommodation and to give a voice to homeless children. The response of one child, in particular has stayed with me: when asked about his homeless family, he replied he wanted to ‘keep them safe’. Homeless children feel a great deal of responsibility for the predicament of their families. No parent wants their child to have this level of worry at the age of seven.

So what has caused the latest rise in homelessness? Leaving aside the Minister’s explanation, there are clear signs that the increasingly desperate shortage of affordable housing is also taking its toll. The number of households who become homeless as the result of the end of an assured shorthold tenancy has increased by more than half. One reason for this might be that landlords were terminating or not renewing more contracts in anticipation of the housing benefit cuts which started to take effect for the 1 million existing claimants from January this year.

Later this year the homelessness sections of the Localism Act 2011 will come into force, allowing councils to discharge their homeless duty with the offer of a suitable 12 month private tenancy. The Government is soon to publish regulations to define suitability. If we’re to avoid families facing even further distress, it’s essential that suitability covers the location of accommodation. Pushing homeless families into a revolving door of short-term private lets is bad enough: but when the accommodation is so far away as to cause serious disruption to family life, such as having to change schools in a GCSE year, it should clearly not be deemed suitable.