We need to do more to tackle homelessness before it happens

By John Glenton | 03 August 2021

Almost 300,000 households equivalent to a city the size of Sheffield needs homelessness support each year.

In 2019/20, a total of 288,470 households were owed a homelessness prevention or relief duty by a local authority.

This is almost the equivalent of councils having to provide homelessness support to every household in Sheffield once in a year

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted across the UK and life returns to something like we remember there are well founded fears that the already immense challenges councils have been facing are about to become even greater due to the hardship caused by a national health emergency.

Analysis conducted by The Big Issue this month (July 2021) has found that despite a government eviction ban one household was becoming homeless every 3.5 hours in the first 90 days of the year when there were 370 mortgage repossessions and 262 rental evictions in England and Wales. The research raises concerns about a potential ‘avalanche of homelessness’ this autumn when COVID- related support measures end.

With the end of the furlough scheme approaching from October 2021, and the eviction ban deadline having passed in England, there is financial pressure building on households across society.

We can reflect with pride at this country’s national response to those affected by homelessness in March 2020.

Through the ‘Everyone In’ initiative, more than 37,000 people have been supported to move into emergency and other forms of accommodation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we look forward, we need similarly decisive action to enable councils to tackle the rising tide of homelessness. The founder of The Big Issue, Lord John Bird, has said: ‘More people are at risk of homelessness now than at any time in living memory.’

As well as dealing with the impact that homelessness has on people councils can also expect to face a significant financial burden.

The Local Government Association has reported that councils are now spending more than five times as much money on bed and breakfast accommodation than they were a decade ago.

The latest figures show that councils in England spent £142m placing homeless households in emergency bed and breakfasts in 2019/20, compared with £26.7m in 2010/11 - a 430% increase. 

Bed and breakfast accommodation is not a financially sustainable long-term solution to tackling the challenges of homelessness. Nor does it provide the environment people need to find a path out of homelessness. If we are to deliver the homeless services our communities require, we must increase the affordable housing supply.

A report by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee last year found that 90,000 new social homes are needed every year to meet the country's housing needs.

National challenges like this need national solutions as we witnessed during the success of ‘Everyone In’.

The country needs a national housing and homelessness strategy with a significant focus on homelessness prevention. As the Kerslake Commission's interim report highlighted, this focus on prevention must be underpinned by long-term sustainable investment, not annual settlements, so that councils and service providers can properly plan ahead.

We know that early intervention can protect people from becoming homeless or those experiencing further physical and mental health problems from living on the streets.

Prevention and early intervention is most effective when it involves a joined-up approach across welfare, housing, homelessness, health and mental health services.

At Riverside we are part of excellent examples of this at a local level such as the Street Engagement Hub in Manchester where people affected by begging and homelessness can access all the services they need in one go rather than having to wait weeks for an appointment with different agencies.

While we welcome the Government’s investment in rough sleeping services and Boris Johnson and Robert Jenrick’s on-going mission to solve rough sleeping we need to focus more resources beyond rough sleeping.

Fixing the problems upstream, including the lack of affordable housing and reductions in social services, are crucial.

Indeed, MHCLG’s Rough Sleeping Strategy, published in 2018, has already set out the importance of this approach; If we are to minimise the considerable harm caused by rough sleeping, the most important thing we can do is to prevent it from happening in the first place’.

Almost three years after publication, this statement is as relevant and pertinent as ever.

The rough sleeping strategy and Rough Sleeper Initiative (RSI) funding has achieved some excellent results.

In its first year RSI funding helped to cut the number of people sleeping on the streets by almost a quarter (23%) in areas which received additional funding, while areas receiving no extra money saw a 41% increase.

We now need to do more to tackle homelessness before it happens.

We strongly believe that a national housing and homeless strategy should be at the very top of the Government’s agenda. In order to be fully effective, this strategy must direct resources towards building more social housing and preventing homelessness.

John Glenton is executive director of care and support at Riverside

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Local Government Association MHCLG Housing Homelessness Early intervention Coronavirus