What’s causing the inexcusable increase in homelessness in 21st century England? Why are families having to bring up children in homeless hostels and other temporary accommodation? Why are we seeing increasing numbers of rough sleepers in our towns and cities?
Today, a cross-party committee of MPs has set out very clearly that the principal cause is the cost and availability of housing.
The DCLG Select Committee, in its first inquiry into homelessness for 10 years, has published a report that is timely, comprehensive and sensible. It concludes that our shortage of social housing means that, for many people, the only way to escape homelessness is to find a private rental.
‘However, for many the financial barriers and instability of tenancies are too great.’
The Committee’s report is clear that since 2010, significant reform of the welfare system has reduced the level of support for low income households and those at risk of homelessness, increasing pressure on levels of homelessness. Households are more at risk of homelessness and local authorities are less able to use private rentals to prevent or relieve the loss of a home.
We wholeheartedly support the Committee’s recommendation that local housing allowance levels should be reviewed so that they more closely reflect market rates. As our shocking analysis shows, by 2020 the four year freeze in LHA means that families in four-fifths of the country could see a gap between the support they need to pay their rent and the maximum support they can get.
The report also acknowledges that insecure private tenancies are the main generator of homelessness, recommending that landlords should be encouraged to offer longer tenancies. It stops short of suggesting what form this encouragement might take. Landlords can already use longer tenancies, but minimal fixed terms with regular renewals provide opportunities for agents to charge extra fees or increase rents.
This must end. A rented home must provide more stability than six months or a year, especially for those who are just keeping their heads above water and at risk of homelessness. Those in the business of letting out homes should be required to let on stable rental contracts of at least five years if families unable to afford to buy are to have any chance of stability.
Finally, the Committee highlights how people with nowhere else to turn are poorly served by local housing authorities, with applications for homelessness support discouraged, people made to feel at fault for their own homelessness, and advice and guidance often meaningless and ineffectual. The Committee asks the Government to consider a new legal duty on councils to provide meaningful support to single homeless people who can prove a local connection.
There is no doubt that people will, tonight, sleep on our streets because they have no entitlement to be rehoused by local authorities. A change in the law is undeniably one way to address this. But we know that it must be backed up by cultural change and adequate funding.
Shelter advisers regularly help families with young children and visibly pregnant women who are also turned away – or frustrated in their attempts to apply for assistance – even though councils are already duty-bound to rehouse them. Even when accommodation is offered, it often amounts to very insecure, expensive and poor quality temporary accommodation because a more settled home simply cannot be found.
The fact of the matter is that improved legal rights and council practice cannot, on their own, end homelessness, which is why it’s so welcome that the report puts structural pressures front and centre. Councils in areas where housing is unaffordable and insecure already face a huge challenge accommodating 50,000 odd families a year. Their hard work to provide solutions to prevent homelessness should be acknowledged. But they need homes to offer people.
If we’re really serious about ending homelessness, we need to provide the stable and affordable homes that our country is crying out for. This is the way to prevent homelessness ever occurring in the first place, saving councils the expense of supporting people at crisis-point and ensuring children have a good start in life.
We’re encouraged by the increased priority both Parliament and the Government is placing on tackling homelessness. But this must be seen in the context of broader housing policy. We understand the emphasis on promoting homes to buy, but, as the Committee acknowledges, not all people are in a position to afford them. Government must provide solutions for people on lower incomes to avoid high rents and insecurity threatening homelessness.
We now need a focus on retaining and building affordable and stable family homes for those who can barely afford a private rent, let alone a mortgage.