Picture this: Rachel, Mike and their young children are on the brink of eviction. Their landlord has asked for a rent increase. When Rachel and Mike make it clear that they cannot afford this there appears to be no option left but for them to leave their home. But rents in the area have risen: they can’t find anything more affordable, close enough to their jobs or their children’s school. In desperation, they turn to their local council for help.
Unfortunately this is the sort of scenario we hear of far too often at Shelter. Latest government homelessness statistics, published last week, show that in the last year 55,090 households were accepted as homeless by their local council, 40% higher than 5 years ago. The number of households in temporary accommodation, waiting to be offered a more settled home, increased by 12% between April and June alone.
Supporting homeless families when they are at crisis point, when it’s too late to save the family home, is costly for everyone: the children who have to move both home and school; desperate parents who may lose their job as a result; the council scrambling to secure suitable temporary accommodation; and health and education services, which often have to deal with the knock-on effects.
Shelter has always argued that prevention is better than cure. Giving households early advice and advocacy greatly increases the chances of preventing them losing their home. In the case of Rachel and Mike, early intervention from the council would allow time for a council housing officer to negotiate with the landlord and agree a reduction in the new rent amount; meanwhile, referring Rachel and Mike to a debt and budgeting adviser could help them to afford just enough rent to earn a short term reprieve from eviction. If all goes well, the family will be able stay in their home, giving them the time to weigh up their future options.
Without this early homelessness prevention work, Rachel and Mike would probably get no help at all – until their situation gets so bad that the council has a legal duty to assist them. This is usually when a bailiff’s date for eviction has been notified – by which point the costs of support are much higher. Increasingly, what help is available will take the form of temporary accommodation in another area, far away from the friends and family who could have helped them through such a traumatic time.
Homelessness prevention work is great value for money – but it still requires resources. Government have recognised the importance of early intervention, encouraging councils to spend £100m a year of their central government grant on homelessness prevention. This is known as the Homelessness Prevention Grant, and worryingly this funding is now under threat.
In a survey of councils conducted by the National Practitioner Support Service earlier this year, nine in ten councils stated that there would be an impact locally if the Homelessness Prevention Grant was not provided, and a third stated that no alternative funding would be available to replace it.
The grant funds a whole range of effective remedies, from debt advice and negotiation with landlords, to credit union accounts and help with rent deposits. Last year, councils took action over 205,000 times to prevent people becoming homeless; a 31% increase since 2010. And there are many more at risk of homelessness who might have benefited from this support.
Earlier this month, Homeless Minister Marcus Jones MP signalled his on-going support for this important funding stream. In the tight spending round ahead, it is vital that the Government continue to support councils, and other housing advice agencies, to carry on this essential work.
While funding of homelessness prevention advice is vital in keeping individual families in their homes, it must go hand in hand with investment in decent, secure and affordable housing so that far fewer families end up struggling in the first place – and can get on with their lives without the worry of rent hikes and eviction.
Local solutions to homelessness can only be found if there are enough decent and secure homes, at rates affordable to people on all incomes.