Observer column: 04 November 2016
Fighting On The Home Front
This week, the government announced it was supporting a private member's bill to require all councils to do homelessness prevention work, and to find accommodation for all people from their area who are made homeless. On the face of it, that's good news, as long as the government gives councils extra funding to deal with the additional homeless people. But it's only half the story.
Hastings Council already does homelessness prevention, where people are encouraged to contact the council before they become homeless. Last year, the council prevented homelessness for 2,385 households - almost ten times the number who were accepted as homeless, making Hastings one of the best-performing councils in the country.
At the moment, councils are only required to accept certain households as homeless and get them into secure accommodation. These 'statutory homeless' households are those including children, older people, or disabled people. So couples and single people under 60 are not automatically provided with housing, although they do receive advice and help to find accommodation.
But homelessness is increasing. The numbers accepted as statutory homeless last year increased by 17%, and the increase this year will be significantly larger. The reasons for this are varied: relationship breakdown, benefit sanctions, drug and alcohol problems, benefit caps, and the fact that housing benefits no longer cover private sector rents, have all contributed. Most homeless households are benefit claimants - those with secure jobs have less trouble finding housing.
Rough sleeping is up too - around 35 people have been sleeping rough in Hastings over the summer (although not the same 35 all the time), three times more than a couple of years ago. Rough sleepers are usually young single men, but an increasing number are women. They often have untreated mental health problems. A significant proportion of rough sleepers are ex-forces, and have found it difficult to cope with civilian life. Hastings Council funds an outreach worker via the Seaview project to contact rough sleepers and offer them help. Added to that, some rough sleepers find it difficult to maintain a tenancy, and often end up sleeping rough repeatedly. The local Clinical Commissioning Group have now funded a 'navigator' to help vulnerable single people maintain their tenancies.
But above all that, one big problem is growing ever more significant: there just isn't enough affordable housing for all the homeless households, especially single people. There's very little one-bedroom housing in the social rented sector, and private rented accommodation is being turned into larger homes, or is just fully occupied. Giving councils a 'duty' to house everyone is all very well, but pointless if the secure housing to put them all in just isn't there. At Hastings Council, we're looking at setting up a housing rental company to provide more affordable rented housing. But the council can only do that through borrowing, and if the rents are set at the local housing allowance rate (i.e. the amount of housing benefit the government is prepared to pay), it's difficult making the sums add up.
So, two cheers for the new homelessness legislation. But it just isn't as simple as giving councils a duty to house everyone. Many vulnerable people need support to maintain a tenancy, often throughout their lives. And without more affordable housing, whether that's funded by government grants or more realistic levels of housing benefit, it's not going to work.
Council Leader's column