The Homelessness Reduction Bill aims to reduce homelessness, especially for those who currently don’t receive help. But MPs have today warned that the Bill should be redrafted to ensure that the existing protections for families and other vulnerable people are not weakened. Shelter strongly support this.
Bob Blackman MP’s Homelessness Reduction Bill, which has its Second Reading in Parliament in two weeks’ time, has the laudable aim of reducing homelessness.
The DCLG Select Committee has today reported on its scrutiny of the draft Bill. They support the Bill because they have concluded that more should be done to ensure that vulnerable people (such as homeless children) receive consistently high levels of service across the country, regardless of housing market conditions.
However, the Committee have rightly pointed out that Bill’s proposed changes to intentionality are too broad. They have recommended that the Bill should be redrafted to ensure that the protections for vulnerable people in priority need are not weakened. They call for a compassionate approach. We warmly welcome this.
Under England’s homelessness safety net, councils helped over 56,000 homeless households last year – most of them families with children – who would be facing street homelessness without this help.
It can be difficult to believe that children and their parents could end up on the streets in 21st century England. But in the days of Cathy Come Home, when Shelter was established 50 years ago, homeless families were not entitled to be housed together. Instead, mothers and children would be offered hostel rooms or social services would take the children into care. So children would be removed from the loving care of their parents simply because they couldn’t find anywhere to live: as played out in the film’s harrowing final scene.
Our current homelessness safety net doesn’t help everyone. It offers little to people without dependent children unless they are vulnerable, which is why some people in this position fall into street homelessness. This is a situation that Mr Blackman’s Bill is quite rightly seeking to address.
Another group who are denied homelessness assistance are those who are ‘intentionally homeless’, maybe because they chose to leave suitable accommodation or breached the terms of their previous tenancy. Last year, over 9,000 households (8% of those applying for help) were deemed to be homeless intentionally. People with children who fall into this category still face street homelessness and still have to turn to social services to support them. When they do so, they are still sometimes warned their children might be taken into care.
When help is given, it still usually consists of one room in a homeless hostel or B&B where they exist for months or years, sharing poorly equipped kitchens and toilets with a steady stream of strangers. Such places are no place for a child other than in an absolute emergency, and certainly for no more than a few weeks.
Whenever our staff visit or support families living in such conditions, we witness the terrible toll it is having on their children – damaging their ability to learn and longer-term life chances as they witness things they shouldn’t, struggle to sleep and maintain their self-esteem, and lack the space to study and play.
As it currently stands, Mr Blackman’s Bill would allow councils to refuse further help to homeless families who they deem to have not taken enough steps to cooperate with the help the council offer. As we’ve said previously, this risks setting families up to fail at a time when they are at their most vulnerable – facing eviction, fleeing a violent partner or already living in shared emergency accommodation, where even the most basic day-to-day tasks (such as making breakfast and getting children to school) are a huge challenge.
It also ignores the structural barriers in the housing system, such as the local housing allowance freeze which means that even with some help, a settled family home can be hard to find for a lone parent on a low income.
In Shelter’s 50th year of fighting to end homelessness, we cannot see more homeless families denied support and having to turn to social services as they did in the 1960s.
We fully support Mr Blackman’s desire to reduce homelessness, rather than let it continue to increase. So we sincerely hope that he will take the Committee’s recommendation on board and amend his Bill to avoid making matters worse for homeless children.