I-SPHERE research published yesterday has provoked a strong reaction from Government. Our annual state-of-the-nation report, The Homelessness Monitor: England, conducted with colleagues from the University of York and University of New South Wales, provides an independent analysis of the impact of economic and policy developments on homelessness.
For the first time this year, it included an online survey of England’s 326 local authorities[i]. The survey results confirmed that councils across England are changing the way they tackle homelessness, with an ongoing shift to more informal interventions, such as debt advice, financial assistance and mediation with family or landlords. Including such informal ‘homelessness prevention’ and ‘relief’ activity, alongside the headline ‘statutory homelessness acceptances’ figures, there were some 280,000 ‘local authority homelessness case actions’ in 2013/14, 9% up on the previous year (and 36% higher than in 2009/10).
Responding to the research (see here, here and here), Homelessness Minister Kris Hopkins claimed it “misleading” and stated that “statutory homelessness remains lower than in 27 of the last 30 years”. What the Minister doesn’t acknowledge is that, at 52,000 in 2013/14, statutory homelessness acceptances are still 12,000 higher than in 2009/10, just before the Coalition Government took office. Even more importantly, the Government’s own figures make clear that this statutory activity now accounts for only a small proportion (about one fifth) of all local authority homelessness work, with more than three-quarters of all logged cases accounted for by homelessness prevention interventions.
Thus nearly two thirds (63%) of authorities responding to our survey agreed that “post-2010 homelessness trends in our area cannot be accurately gauged by tracking our statutory homelessness assessment statistics”. Based on these survey results we can confidently state that the apparent 31% rise in statutory homelessness over the past four years understates the true increase in ‘homelessness expressed demand’ over that period, and that the apparent reduction in 2013/14 (of 2%) cannot be interpreted as indicating any underlying downward trend in such demand.
The Government has also taken issue with our argument that welfare benefit cuts, in combination with constraints on housing access and supply, critically influence overall levels of homelessness, with these effects felt most acutely in London. A spokesman stated that: ‘official evaluation does not show a link to welfare reforms’. But more than three-quarters (77%) of local authorities responding to our August 2014 survey said that post-2010 welfare reforms had increased the incidence of homelessness in their area (100% said so in London), and the overwhelming majority (85%) said that welfare cuts and changes had made it more difficult for them to resolve homelessness (again 100% in London). Can they all be wrong Minister?
Only one in ten council homelessness managers believed that the homelessness impacts of welfare reform had largely ‘run their course’, with most anticipating that such impacts would accelerate over the next two years. While London local authority survey respondents were more likely than those elsewhere to forecast diminishing impacts of welfare reform, this was largely because the effects of the national benefit caps had already been so dramatic in the capital, including what some referred to as the “cleansing” of benefit dependent families from the private rented sector in central London. Growing out-of-area temporary accommodation placements of homeless households (up 26% in the past year) is just one well-publicised consequence.
Single and youth homelessness service providers throughout England, and indeed across the UK, have been repeatedly telling us in in-depth interviews that the ratcheting up of the sanctions regime under Jobseekers Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance, and thereafter Universal Credit, is their major ongoing concern. At the same time, the ‘localisation’ of the Social Fund, and growing resort to food banks and other forms of purely charitable assistance, indicates a severe weakening in the support available to households in the sort of crisis situations that can lead to homelessness, with the inadequacy of the ‘in kind’ support typically provided by Local Welfare Assistance particularly strongly criticised by domestic abuse service providers. Online survey respondents acknowledged that the homelessness impacts of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ (or ‘Spare Room Subsidy’) had to date been widely mitigated via Discretionary Housing Payments, but feared significant homelessness implications, and even greater geographical displacement effects, as and when these are scaled back.
Given our new findings, compounding the sheer weight of quantitative and qualitative evidence presented in successive Homelessness Monitors since 2010, the Government’s denial of a link between welfare reform and homelessness is simply devoid of credibility. Where we can find common ground with the Minister is in acknowledging the important investment that there has been in homelessness prevention and rough sleeping services under the current administration (indeed this year’s Monitor emphasises that many local authorities outside of London reported positive developments in the service they can offer to single homeless people in their area since 2010). But these typically small-scale, time-limited and tightly-targeted specialist homelessness initiatives cannot be expected to compensate for the swingeing cuts in mainstream ‘Supporting People’ revenue funding seen since 2010[ii], far less the pressure exerted by the ongoing squeeze in the general welfare support available to working age households.
Thus homelessness appears still to be on the rise in England, and it is difficult to see this process reversing until such time as the welfare safety net, including access to affordable housing, begins to be restored.
[i] The online survey was conducted in August/September 2014. The aim of the survey was to delve beneath the official statistics to enhance understanding of how housing market trends, welfare reforms and other key policy developments have impacted on homelessness trends and responses at local level. An e-mail invitation to participate in the survey was sent to local authority homelessness contacts via the National Practitioner Support Service (NPSS), and 43% of all local authorities in England responded (52% in London).
[ii] Supporting People overall spending budgeted by local government in England reduced by almost half (49%) in real terms between 2010/11 (original budget) and 2014/15, based on analysis of CIPFA Financial and General Statistics carried out as part of Annette Hastings et al study for Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Counting the Cost of the Cuts (report forthcoming).