Homelessness: A 21st Century Scandal
Homelessness: another reform doesn’t work.
By the time the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force in April 2018, it had become the most prolonged and costly Private Member’s Bill to be implemented. As far as legislation goes, it seems to be a decent enough idea – it aims to reduce homelessness by placing a duty on local authorities to try and prevent people losing their home, whereas previously councils only had to assist when some people actually became homeless. The Act pledged £72.7million to be paid out by central government to local councils in England over three years. However, since it’s been enacted, councils have been swamped by applications, and two -thirds of them believe this funding isn’t enough, rising to 86 percent of London boroughs (New Local Government Network, 4 April).
Good intentions aren’t enough to counter the economic reasons behind homelessness, nor the bureaucracy of getting council assistance. People approaching a council are assessed according to the five tests of homelessness, which as well as determining whether or not they are at risk of or have already lost their home, also confirm their eligibility for assistance, ‘priority need’, ‘intentionality’ and ‘local connection’.
Legislation such as the Homelessness Reduction Act and the Housing Act 1996 dictate how council staff work, and who they can assist. Whether someone will get help from the council depends largely on what documents they have as evidence of their situation. Proving homelessness or the threat of it isn’t always straightforward. While a valid eviction notice or even a letter from friends or family someone is staying with temporarily will usually be sufficient, most rough sleepers won’t have such paperwork proving why they left their last settled address, even if they could trace this back. A sleeping bag in a shop doorway isn’t proof of homelessness, for a council.
As well as proving their housing situation, applicants have to confirm their identity, and it has to be the ‘right’ identity. British citizens and refugees are eligible for assistance, and asylum seekers are housed temporarily by other branches of the state, but it can be confusingly complicated to determine which other people can be helped. Those with ‘no recourse to public funds’ are not able to get assistance from a council’s housing department, and include failed asylum seekers and some people from Europe who aren’t employed. Then, the length of time they have worked and the reason they left their last job are looked into, and proof is needed to see if they meet the criteria. Europeans who left their last job voluntarily would not retain what’s called their ‘worker status’ and would not ordinarily qualify for state assistance.
For example, a Spanish woman who resigned from her job and then became homeless after fleeing domestic violence would get no help from the housing department. Nor would she be eligible for benefits, meaning that she can’t pay for a space in a refuge, or any other accommodation. Being ineligible almost makes her an un-person, which she will remain until she finds employment, near-impossible given that she’s homeless and at risk. It’s perfectly acceptable for councils to discriminate against people lacking employment and not having the ‘right’ nationality. While in many ways, prejudice against some groups, such as gay people, is being eroded, discrimination according to where someone happened to have been born is enforced by the state.
If a council housing worker deliberately or mistakenly provides assistance beyond general advice to someone who isn’t eligible, then they are likely to get censured by management. Only if someone with no recourse to public funds has very severe health issues or their household includes children would social services instead have a duty to assist, including emergency housing.
Eligible people who aren’t yet homeless, but are likely to be within the next 56 days are now able to get more assistance from the council than before. Many households threatened with homelessness are those who have received ‘Section 21’ eviction notices from a private landlord. A ‘Section 21’ notice allows landlords to evict tenants almost on a whim, by only having to give a reason such as that they want to renovate the property. A ‘Section 8’ notice is used less often, to evict tenants who have broken the terms of the tenancy, usually by getting into rent arrears. The whole eviction procedure can take many months before tenants finally have to leave, usually having been charged several hundred pounds for court costs. In theory, this allows them time to find other housing.
People threatened with homelessness who approach a council go into the ‘prevention’ stage of a homeless application, meaning that they can receive advice and support with trying to avoid becoming homeless. This could include clarifying if the eviction is legal or help with maintaining or finding other accommodation, including grants to pay arrears or deposits and rent in advance for a new tenancy. Staff are likely to have to dispel clients’ hopes of getting a council or housing association owned property, and instead point them towards private sector housing, which comes with its own difficulties.
If an eviction can’t be prevented and the household becomes homeless, or if they are already homeless when they approach the council, then they go into the ‘relief’ stage of their homeless application. Whether or not the council provides emergency temporary accommodation depends on if it is decided they are in ‘priority need’, or more vulnerable than an ‘ordinary’ person. Households which include dependent children, teenagers leaving the ‘care system’, people fleeing domestic violence and some people with serious health issues would be in ‘priority need’. The council would then place them in temporary or ‘interim’ accommodation, which could be a room in a hotel, bed-and-breakfast, hostel or even a self-contained flat or house. These self-contained properties tend to be owned by private landlords who charge more in rent to the council to use them as temporary housing than they would if the properties were rented with longer-term tenancies.
The Homelessness Reduction Act was intended to save money by lowering the number of households going in to temporary accommodation. The reasoning was that if more evictions could be prevented, then there would be fewer households becoming homeless. However, nearly two-thirds of councils reported that the number of people housed in temporary accommodation had increased, and they were staying there for longer (www.localgov.co.uk, 25/3/19). In 2018, 82,310 households were living in temporary accommodation (Big Issue, 17 April), a 71 percent increase since 2010.
Temporary accommodation is often of poor quality, especially B&Bs, where vulnerable people with complex needs are housed with insufficient support. B&B staff, untrained and unregulated, have to manage as best they can. Most single people or childless couples would not meet the ‘priority need’ threshold to be granted temporary accommodation. Instead, they would have to try and find a hostel or private sector shared house if they can’t stay with friends or family. If nothing is available, then they will have to sleep rough.
If long-term housing hasn’t been found 56 days after someone has been confirmed as homeless by the council, then their application will be reassessed. Then, the reasons why they became homeless are looked at closer to see if they are ‘intentionally homeless’. No-one wants to lose their home, but someone would be judged to have made themselves homeless if their actions or inactions led to their situation. If, for example, someone was evicted for rent arrears, then they are likely to be deemed ‘intentionally homeless’ if they could afford their rent. Or, if they lost their home after being sent to prison, the crime they committed would be seen as the intentional act which led to them being homeless.
The applicant’s ‘local connection’ would also be clarified. A ‘local connection’ to a council area is determined by factors like how long someone has lived there or whether they are employed there. Someone without a ‘local connection’ may get referred to the council of an area where they do have links, whether they like it or not. If they are judged intentionally homeless, not in priority need or without a local connection, the council will end their assistance, including emergency accommodation.
The decision made on a homeless application determines what priority the applicant has on waiting lists for council and housing association properties. Households who have passed the five tests – who are homeless, eligible, in priority need, unintentionally homeless and with a local connection will go to the top of the list. But there could still be a long wait for long-term housing. Larger households face the most difficulties in being rehoused, as there are even fewer three- and four-bedroom properties than there are smaller ones. And when they finally find a suitably-sized house it may not be affordable if they are subject to the ‘benefit cap’, which limits how much is paid as benefits. So, they may be stuck in temporary accommodation for years waiting for a property. The cost of this to local councils for one family could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, more than the cost of buying an appropriately-sized house.
If and when a household finds long-term housing, whether from a council, housing association or private landlord, then their case will be closed, as a success. ‘Long-term’ here can mean housing likely to remain available for only as little as six months. If the applicant refuses their one offer of suitable housing without an acceptable reason, then the council will end its assistance and they will have to make their own arrangements, somehow.
Loads of cases
Council staff track the progress of each homeless application on their caseload, and many local authorities use the ‘Jigsaw’ database to maintain client records. According to the firm which produces it, ‘Housing Jigsaw is not simply an IT product, it is a housing options solution based on an IT platform’ (www.housingjigsaw.co.uk/what-is-housing-jigsaw/). In reality, maintaining the Jigsaw database (along with all the other spreadsheets and logs) dominates the working day, leaving little time for staff to help their clients find secure housing.
Staff are likely to have many dozens of people on their ever-growing caseloads, so won’t be able to spend much time on each. The Jigsaw client records count down to the expected date of homelessness or when the relief period ends, and if the records aren’t updated on time, then alerts flag up on reports. Rather than this being a helpful reminder, it’s more likely to lead to pressure from management. As with any capitalist organisation, bureaucracy becomes more prominent, or even more important than helping people.
Even if staff had more time available to directly support their clients with finding somewhere to live, there aren’t enough homes within reach of many people. In a survey by the Local Government Association published on 25 March, 90 percent of councils who responded were ‘seriously concerned’ that they couldn’t access enough housing for those in need. Shelter is calling for 3.1 million more housing association or council homes to be built over the next two decades (Shelter, 31 January), but it’s not going to happen.
The housing market isn’t led by need, but by whatever practices are likely to be most profitable for landlords and property developers. Cheaper, basic housing brings in less money than building swanky flats and townhouses, so more expensive and more profitable housing tends to get built. This prices many people, especially those reliant on benefits, out of much private rented housing, and also means that qualifying for a mortgage isn’t a realistic option. In fact, the housing shortage benefits private landlords. When demand outstrips supply, landlords can be choosier about who they rent to, and can charge rent at the highest that someone will pay for it.
The term ‘affordable housing’, usually to denote properties owned by housing associations or councils, tacitly admits that other housing isn’t affordable to most people. The root cause of homelessness is in how property is owned in capitalist society. When someone else owns where you live, your rights to the property only last for as long as you can afford to live there or until the landlord changes their mind. We’re alienated from something as personal as our own home, if we have one.
Any good intentions behind the Homelessness Reduction Act or the efforts of council staff can’t resolve the housing shortage. And nor can this reform – or any other – address the economic reasons behind it. Councils, like any other organisation, are limited to what they can do within their circumstances. And which people get assistance is decided by putting them into categories – eligible, in priority need, intentionally homeless – and rationing support accordingly. The notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor are at play here, with the dividing line often being just what bits of paper people have. While staff will try to find some leeway, it’s a cold, alienating way of dealing with other people. Whether or not someone qualifies for assistance is more important than their genuine need of somewhere to live.