We are living in unprecedented times. The country is in lockdown to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) and we must all follow government guidance to stay in our homes, turning our living rooms into classrooms and our kitchens and bedrooms into offices.
The pandemic has reminded us how vitally important our homes are as a place of sanctuary and protection – and how so many of us lack this basic necessity.
At Shelter, we’re working hard to support the thousands of people who are struggling to keep or find a suitable home. As the pandemic’s impact on individual finances and the economy continues to emerge, and when current restrictions on evictions end, the number of people facing homelessness is likely to grow.
The current system
Two years ago, the government implemented new homelessness legislation – the Homelessness Reduction Act – which it sees as a ‘key part’ of its efforts to prevent people from becoming homeless.
This move gave rights to more homeless households through the new prevention and relief duties, re-emphasising the need for early intervention to prevent homelessness, and placed a new duty on other public authorities to ensure homeless people are referred for help.
When the legislation was going through Parliament, the Minister promised to review its implementation, including its resourcing and how it’s working in practice, within two years.
So, two years on, how has the new system been working? Is it in a good state to deal with the increase in numbers we expect as a result of the current crisis?
New research points to a need for change
Today we publish new research into the implementation of the Act in ‘normal times’, before the coronavirus outbreak hit, to assess if we have an adequate homelessness safety net.
Last year, we conducted a six-month multi-method research programme to see where things were working, and what needed to change. It’s clear from the results that even before our homelessness system was tested by the outbreak, the legislation wasn’t working to improve the outcomes of people facing homelessness.
Homelessness isn’t decreasing
The overall objective of the Homelessness Reduction Act was to reduce homelessness. But it’s clear that this hasn’t happened.
Since the Act was implemented, the number of homeless households living in temporary accommodation has increased by 8%. This continues to grow in part because councils are struggling to prevent and relieve homelessness at an earlier stage.
Our analysis shows that half (50%) of homeless households are not helped to find a new home at the relief stage. This means that these households either leave the system without being helped to find a new home, or they are offered accommodation under the main rehousing duty, which existed before the new legislation came into effect.
People threatened with homelessness are losing their homes
Another key aim of the Act is to ensure that ‘more people get the assistance they need to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place’.
When introducing his Bill as private member’s legislation, Bob Blackman MP said: ‘The sad fact is that when someone is threatened with homelessness and goes to their local authority they will as likely as not be told, “Go home, wait until the bailiffs arrive and come back when you are literally on the streets.”‘
The Act is supposed to stop this from happening by requiring local authorities to help people earlier, when they are threatened with homelessness in 56 days.
But this is not always happening. The starkest finding from our analysis is that the Act isn’t preventing most people losing their homes. In the last year, only a fifth (21%) of households threatened with homelessness were able to stay in their homes. This means that in four out of five cases where people are threatened with homelessness, they were not helped to keep their existing home.
Councils are struggling to provide personalised support
The Act also aims to change the support available to homeless households by creating a system that is more responsive to individual housing and support needs.
There has generally been some culture change in how people are treated when they approach homelessness services. Audits of homelessness assistance found that advisers were often empathetic and helpful, with good listening skills.
However, we found that people are encountering bureaucratic barriers to help. This includes overly onerous requests for proof of homelessness and identity, having to make an application online, and referrals from other public authorities not being accepted until crisis point (e.g. prison release day).
Despite the new duty to provide personalised assistance, almost half (48%) of Shelter advisers surveyed felt that personalised housing plans (PHPs) are rarely tailored to clients’ needs. Our analysis of PHPs found they can be difficult to understand and of little or no help to applicants, for example by simply informing them they won’t be able to afford a local private rental and will have a long wait for social housing.
Legislation isn’t enough
It is clear that the homelessness legislation isn’t doing enough to reduce homelessness. People are still losing their homes and the help available is often failing to prevent or relieve homelessness. While we supported the legislation, we argued from the outset that legislation alone cannot reduce homelessness.
Homelessness will only end when the structural barriers to keeping or finding a home are removed.
Our research shows clearly that councils struggle to prevent or relieve people’s homelessness because of the lack of access to homes people can afford. We found that the chronic shortage of social housing and insufficient local housing allowance rates (the housing benefit for private renters) are pushing people into homelessness.
Homelessness measures during the pandemic
The government has acknowledged that many more people are now worried about the threat of homelessness and has introduced a number of important measures to respond to this.
The government’s recent announcements on dedicated funding for rough sleepers, restoring Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates, and halting all possession proceedings, are very welcome. They will help people who are homeless and those at risk of homelessness through the national lockdown.
But what will happen when the system returns to normal? The vast number of families in temporary accommodation and the thousands of street homeless people at the start of the lockdown show that homelessness policy was already failing. What can we do to make sure we are in a better position when the COVID-19 crisis passes?
Life after COVID-19
More needs to be done to prevent a spike in homelessness when the eviction ban is lifted.
Housing benefit is a vital homelessness prevention tool. The government needs to lift LHA rates to cover average rents (the 50th percentile) across every local market during the outbreak – this will ensure that median income households needing to claim LHA for the first time will be able to stay in their home, pay their rent and avoid going into arrears. It is an essential step that the government must take now to avoid a debt crisis and a potentially huge increase in evictions once the outbreak is over.
In ordinary times, the key role of LHA must continue to be recognised as a vital tool to prevent homelessness – pandemic or no pandemic. But ultimately, the only way to tackle homelessness and the housing crisis is to ensure councils have the social housing they need to provide people with affordable, safe homes they can stay in. To properly fix the system, the government must build much more social housing.
Help us prevent a rise in homelessness after COVID-19. Please sign our letter to tell the Chancellor we need a stronger safety net.
 Shelter Consultancy services carried out six audits of councils’ homelessness services. These audits include a combination of file assessments, mystery shopping and/or stakeholder workshops.
 Shelter, Survey of 63 Shelter services staff, online, December 2018 – February 2019