This article titled “Homelessness crisis: ministers consider ‘prevention duty’ for councils” was written by Patrick Butler Social policy editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 10th March 2016 16.44 UTC
Ministers are considering changes to the law in an attempt to support the growing number of people on the brink of homelessness, including tens of thousands of “sofa surfers” currently denied official help to keep them off the streets.
Options include introducing a new duty of prevention in England, which would force councils to provide advice and support for anyone at risk of homelessness, regardless of whether they are deemed to be in priority need under existing laws.
The mooted “no one turned away” duty would give all residents who are homeless or at imminent risk of losing their home the right to practical help to prevent them losing a tenancy or secure new accommodation.
In exchange, they would be required to cooperate with a tailored package of measures such as debt advice, employment help or family mediation, either to help them stay in their existing home or find a suitable new home.
There is widespread support for a new prevention duty among campaigners and local authorities amid concerns that the homelessness crisis is spiralling out of control because of rising rents, insecure private tenancies and housing benefit reforms.
Ministers are understood to be enthusiastic about making prevention a legal duty, believing that forcing councils to intervene earlier to try to solve tenancy problems will drive down the rising numbers of households who are accepted as homeless.
Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at the charity Crisis, said: “The government’s commitment to consider options – including legislation – to prevent more people from becoming homeless could be the start of one of the most important developments for tackling homelessness in nearly 40 years.”
However, there is scepticism among councils in homelessness hotspots such as London that a prevention duty alone will be enough to address a crisis caused primarily by the lack of affordable housing, and some are calling for legal changes to make it easier for them to rehouse homeless families in other parts of the country.
The biggest single cause of homelessness is increasingly the ending of a shorthold tenancy in the private rented sector, a problem that is affecting stable, working families caught by high rents, and ministers believe that requiring councils to intervene earlier with assistance will help arrest this trend.
They are looking closely at legislation introduced in Wales in 2015 which requires councils to take steps to help anyone at risk of homelessness, regardless of need. Early findings show a significant reduction in the number of households offered a full homeless duty, suggesting prevention work was helping to keep more people in their homes.
Under current English legislation, last adapted in 2002, a full duty of homelessness is in effect reserved for those deemed to be in priority need, which in practice means families with young children and pregnant mothers.
This means that people who do not qualify for priority help, including most single people and a number of vulnerable groups, including rough sleepers, are effectively told by some councils to fend for themselves.
A “mystery shopping” exercise carried out in 16 local authorities by Crisis in 2014 found that councils turned away a third of single homeless people, some of whom presented as rough sleepers or victims of domestic violence.
The interest in a law change comes amid renewed concern in Westminster around rising homelessness. The communities and local government select committee has launched an inquiry, while a new all-party parliamentary group on homelessness set up by Conservative backbench MP David Mackintosh held its first meeting on Wednesday.
Mackintosh told the Guardian he would welcome measures which put the emphasis on addressing housing instability before they spiralled into full-blown crisis: “It makes sense to help someone before they become homeless.”
However, some London councils are not convinced that a prevention duty alone will allow them to cope with a structural crisis caused by rising rents, an acute shortage of affordable housing and inadequate housing benefit help, a situation Newham council has called in evidence to MPs a “disaster scenario”.
Councils including Tory-controlled Westminster and Labour-controlled Newham are lobbying for a dilution of existing law to enable them to house homeless families outside the capital. They say it is increasingly difficult to fulfill their duty to rehouse homeless people locally because of high rents.
Rehousing of London homeless families as far away as Hull, Stoke, Birmingham and Manchester has proved politically toxic, and ministers are understood to be wary of making it easier for council to discharge duty outside the capital, not least because of objections from discharged families’ new “host” councils.
But London councils argue it is impossible to source affordable accommodation for rising numbers of homeless households because of restrictions on housing benefit levels and shrinking council housing stock as a result of right to buy.
The veteran at risk of homelessness deemed ‘not a priority’
Former soldier and human resources professional David Watts currently faces eviction as a result of delays to his housing benefit payments – but his local council has told him they cannot offer him support to prevent him becoming homeless.
After Watts gave up his job to set up a new business, he applied for housing benefit to help with his rent – but mix-ups between the council and the Department for Work and Pensions have left him without rent support for over nine weeks.
He told the Guardian the council told him they could not provide him with advice or help to prevent him being made homeless because he was “not a priority”.
“I said ‘what about if I am homeless?’ They said they still would not be able to do anything because I’m not ‘vulnerable’.
“I was told that as a fit, healthy male I am not a priority and that if I were made homeless I would just have to deal with it as there was no help available to me.
“Council housing teams no longer deem homelessness for males who are fit and healthy and able to work as a vulnerability.”
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