Lessons from Wales on reforming homelessness legislation

The way in which councils in England support homeless people could change considerably if the homelessness reduction bill becomes law. The bill will introduce a preventative approach to homelessness, where all people, regardless of whether they are in ‘priority need’, receive some help and assistance to stay in their home or find a new home. People in priority need, such as families with children, will retain a right to be rehoused if they lose their home.

The bill draws heavily on Welsh legislation, which took effect in 2015. The new approach is still in its early stages but the experiences in Wales provide some useful lessons for politicians and local authorities in England.

Our colleagues in Shelter Cymru have published new qualitative research into the experiences of people seeking help under the new system. The report is well worth a read for anyone preparing for change in England.

Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, experiences were mixed. In some cases, homelessness was successfully prevented. But other people did not feel the council supported them, describing themselves as “in limbo” or “cast adrift”. Some people were made to wait for the stress and expense of a bailiff eviction and wrongly told they would be found intentionally homeless if they left.

The lack of genuinely affordable homes proved to be a barrier to preventing and relieving homelessness. Households described futile searches for property and being told to contact landlords who refused to take tenants on benefits. Although some people were successfully rehoused in the private rented sector others felt they had not received enough help to find accommodation.

What is clear from the research is that they way in which staff treat people matters. People hugely appreciated respectful staff who really listened to them. This was especially important to identify previously unmet support needs.

This is how we’d all expect to be treated by a public service, but unfortunately we know all too often that the adversarial approach of legislation and scant resources can mean people are not treated in the way they deserve – or the law requires.

Overall the report finds that the new system is still bedding in but the approach is worth pursuing. For England it’s a reminder that the job will not be complete when the bill comes law. Councils will need support and funding to adapt to the new approach. And crucially central government will have to unlock the tools of homelessness prevention by supporting genuinely affordable homes and fixing the housing benefit safety net.