Last week, following the first parliamentary inquiry into homelessness for ten years, a cross-party committee of MPs identified the principal cause of homelessness as the cost and availability of housing.
The Committee also recommended that a vital component in addressing homelessness is making sure that the support given to those at risk of homelessness, and to people not assessed as in ‘priority need’ for rehousing, is meaningful.
The report welcomed the aspirations of new legislation introduced in Wales last year, which aims to change the practices of council housing departments by requiring them to do more to prevent homelessness, regardless of whether people are assessed as having a priority for help or not. Today, the Committee has launched a pre-legislative inquiry into Bob Blackman MP’s Homelessness Reduction Bill.
In giving evidence to the homelessness inquiry, Minister Marcus Jones suggested that ‘we need to see the data over a period to make sure that it backs up what is promising evidence’. The Minister said that he was not ruling out looking at changes to legislation in England but first wanted to ‘see how the data pans out and how it really works in Wales’.
We agree that the Welsh approach provides a useful test bed for any changes to homelessness law in England, so we’re keeping a close eye on how the new system is really working in Wales. Does it improve outcomes for ‘non-priority’ adults, who are currently entitled to very little assistance in England? And how does is affect outcomes for families and vulnerable people without dependent children, who often have complex needs (‘priority need’ groups).
This week, the Welsh Government published the first full set of annual statistics on local housing authorities’ activities under the new homelessness legislation.
So what can we learn from this when considering changes to legislation in England?
Councils are failing to prevent homelessness in a third cases: why is this?
While it’s fantastic that 65% of people threatened with homelessness had their homelessness successfully prevented, this means over a third didn’t. In some council areas, the success rate was lower than 50%. Whether this is due to pressured local housing markets or variations in service provisions, budgets and culture, it suggests that legislation change alone cannot ensure consistency of practice nor be a panacea for preventing homelessness. This will be especially true in areas with an acute shortage of affordable housing.
Homelessness prevention doesn’t mean preventing the loss of a home
Most people would assume that preventing a family from becoming homeless means helping them to avoid eviction. After all, most people threatened with homelessness don’t want to lose their home. But, of the 65% of successful preventions in Wales, less than a quarter (23%) were helped to remain in their homes. Three-quarters were helped into alternative accommodation, possibly in different neighbourhoods further away from schools and friends. It shows that crisis-driven prevention services don’t necessary prevent people losing their homes: in this context ‘prevention’ means avoiding statutory homelessness. The biggest cause of homelessness in England is the end of a short-term tenancy, so if we want to genuinely prevent homelessness we need to provide stable homes to those at risk.
Significant numbers are falling through the net
The numbers of people losing their rights to assistance due to ‘unreasonably failing to cooperate’ are growing. In the most recent quarter (January-March 2016), over 1 in 10 applicants (540 households) were found to be unreasonably failing to cooperate. This is giving our colleagues in Wales serious cause for concern. We need more evidence on who these households are and what are they being asked to cooperate with. How many are people struggling to cope with the system, perhaps because of poor mental health or difficulties in communicating? What level of proof of cooperation is needed? Are councils expecting evidence that people have taken steps (such as contacting letting agents) that might not change outcomes? And, most importantly, what is happening to families denied support – are they turning to social services?
Changes to homelessness law don’t happen very often. Legal entitlements are important because they give a clear indication of the help we should expect when the worst happens and the threat of homelessness looms. If we are to change the law in England, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right. We must consider how the changes are really working in Wales – and, most importantly, how similar changes would affect outcomes in England.