Over 80,000 children in Britain will spend Christmas homeless and living in temporary accommodation – a disgraceful fact that has caused Shelter to launch an emergency fundraising appeal. Intervention from Shelter’s advisers can ensure that children are not inappropriately housed in unsuitable Bed and Breakfast and put pressure on local authorities to meet their legal obligation to re-house homeless families in suitable, settled accommodation as soon as possible.
The legal safety net for homeless families is both clear and strong – a fact to be proud of and the reason you won’t see homeless children on the street this Christmas. If a family is homeless through no fault of their own and eligible for support in the UK then a local authority has a duty to re-house them. Often this will require a period in temporary accommodation (TA) until a suitable home can be found – and in high pressure areas like London this can take a long time.
At Shelter we’re hearing more reports that England’s chronic shortage of genuinely affordable, suitable housing is making it harder for local authorities to meet these obligations. Temporary accommodation has to be found and paid for; a task which is increasingly difficult in England’s overheated rental market, where housing support is out of sync with housing costs.
The weekly cost of TA is normally covered by housing benefit. But cuts and changes to housing benefit have eroded local authorities’ ability to procure suitable TA. Budgets no longer reflect market rents and landlords are reluctant to enter into long-term contracts that may prove unsustainable, especially when they can easily let their flat on the open market.
This means local authorities often have no choice other than to use B&B as emergency stop gap accommodation, even though B&Bs can be more expensive than more suitable alternatives. For all the problems with B&Bs – and Shelter’s investigation has uncovered many – at least they provide emergency beds for a family presenting as homeless late on a Friday afternoon.
In the context of these funding pressures, the response from Kris Hopkins, the new Housing Minister, must be frustrating for many councils. He insists there is “no excuse” for councils to breach the legal six week limit on B&B use. But without realistic budgets to fund TA many local authorities are trying to find accommodation with one hand tied behind their back. And this is set to get worse now the overall benefit cap has put a further squeeze on household budgets.
The Housing Minister also cites a recent change in the law as giving more flexibility to local authorities. Councils can now re-house homeless families permanently into the private rented sector, which could reduce the pressure on TA (although carries its own risks). But councils cannot place families in unaffordable accommodation, while housing benefit cuts combined with rising rents mean that many councils are unable to find suitable private rented accommodation that is affordable to families on low incomes. So the reality of housing pressures on the ground prevents that legislative flexibility from meaning much in practice.
Overall the private rented sector isn’t able to supply enough affordable and suitable accommodation for homeless families, whether for temporary accommodation or a longer-term home. That is why Shelter is calling on government to increase the supply of genuinely affordable housing. Homeless families also need to be temporarily exempted from the overall benefit cap or local authorities will find it even harder to rehouse them. Councils also have to do all they can (and yes some aren’t trying hard enough) but until government takes further action many will feel they have plenty of “excuses” for breaching the legal limits and leaving children languishing in B&Bs this Christmas.