How do we tackle homelessness?

An independent review of our homelessness legislation, published today by Crisis, has concluded that the legal assistance owed to people threatened with homelessness must be made more inclusive. The review, conducted by a panel of independent experts, proposes changing the law along the lines of the new system introduced in Wales last year.

The Crisis study is not the only review of homelessness legislation going on. The Government has pledged to continue its financial support to councils, and is currently conducting its own review of how we tackle homelessness. And for the first time in 10 years, a Parliamentary Select Committee is looking into the issue.

Our current system of protections against homelessness is not perfect – so a change in the legislation could be welcome, but it’s vital we get it right. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to make sure that we learn lessons from the past, as well as from experiences in other countries.

Homelessness is not an inevitability. It is the result of people not being able to find a home. The primary reason more destitute people are visible on our streets (not to mention the worrying increase in children hidden away in temporary accommodation, such as homeless B&B rooms) is the failure of Government policy. Improving policy would improve the situation.

If we make it easier for people to find and keep a home, then we could make homelessness a thing of the past.

So how do we do that?

First, as the review panel – and Welsh legislation – recognise, people are far more likely to avoid homelessness if they receive help before they’ve hit crisis-point. The Welsh system entitles people to assistance when they are threatened with homelessness within 56 days.

The sooner people get expert advice and assistance with problems like debt, relationship breakdown, or applying for help in paying their rent, the more time they have to save their home. But restrictions in Legal Aid (the scheme that provides free Legal Advice to those on low incomes) mean that it’s now impossible to get advice on these problems until you’re threatened with homelessness.

It is vital that any change in English law makes it easier for people to get help as soon as they start to hit a problem. This has to be meaningful assistance, provided by well-trained housing advisers, whether they are in local councils, private practices or voluntary organisations like Shelter.

Second, even an expert adviser is unlikely to be able to help you save your home if the landlord has decided they want you out. The biggest cause of statutory homelessness is the ending of a short-term tenancy.  We could do wonders in reducing homelessness if we required landlords to offer more stable tenancies.

Third, there is little scope to save or find a home if rents increase while your wages (and housing benefit) are frozen. Our analysis shows that the freeze in local housing allowance will make whole swathes of the country unaffordable by 2020.  Not to mention a raft of further restrictions, from Shared Accommodation Rates for the under 35s to the so-called Bedroom Tax.  If we’re serious about tackling homelessness, we must make sure people can afford to rent a home.

And how about social housing? This provides stable homes at affordable rents, often with the support people need to get their lives back on track: an issue recognised in other countries introducing Housing First schemes.  The Local Government Association and London Councils have both raised concerns that measures in the Housing and Planning Bill currently going through Parliament risks decimating the availability of social homes, in the very places where they are most needed to prevent homelessness – areas where a market rent is just not affordable to ordinary working people.

Local councils are already working hard to assist homeless people, and could do more even without a change in the law. But they can only really prevent homelessness if national housing policy makes sure that there are enough stable and affordable homes to go round.

We can end homelessness, and we must. A change in the law is certainly one part of the solution.  But providing more genuinely affordable homes is even more urgent.