Spiralling rents, welfare reforms and council funding cuts will undermine the impact of the most significant new homelessness legislation for 40 years, charities have said.
There is consensus among campaigners and local authorities that the Homelessness Reduction Act, which came into force on Tuesday and imposes legal duties on English councils to take positive steps to prevent and relieve homelessness, is a welcome and positive move.
However, there are fears that the act imposes costly new duties on councils at a time when they face drastic funding cuts, and does nothing to confront the underlying factors driving homelessness such as housing benefit cuts, lack of affordable housing and insecure private sector tenancies.
“The level of homelessness in this country is nothing less than a cause for national shame, so we welcome initiatives to help combat this including the Homelessness Reduction Act. It will mean a wider group of people will be entitled to help from their councils, and earlier, which can only be good news,” said Polly Neate, chief executive of the housing charity Shelter.
Martin Tett, the Local Government Association’s housing spokesman, said: “Local authorities are currently having to house the equivalent of an average secondary school’s worth of homeless children every month. While they are doing all they can to help families facing homelessness, it’s essential that the new act’s duties on councils are fully funded.”
The act, which adapts a draft bill drawn up by the charity Crisis in 2016, requires councils to assist anyone who is homeless or at risk of it. This includes those who in the past were not considered as being in priority need – typically single adults without children. Prisons, hospitals and jobcentres will have a duty to refer inmates, patients and claimants at risk of homelessness to councils. In theory, fewer households will go through the misery of homelessness, at less cost to the taxpayer.
In the London borough of Southwark, which has been piloting the act for the past year, the new approach has delivered positive effects. Numbers of households being put up in temporary homes have halved in a year, and the use of unsuitable and expensive bed and breakfast accommodation has been eliminated.
People threatened with homelessness were helped to find homes in the private rental sector – though this was often many miles away in outer London boroughs. The borough provided mediation to rehouse young people at home after they had been thrown out by their family following a row. In some cases it paid off tenants’ rent areas.
But progress did not come cheap. In the first year Southwark topped up the £1m government grant it received to test the new system with £750,000 of its own cash. Continuing to provide effective homelessness prevention, it said, would be impossible without sustainable funding or without addressing the root causes of homelessness.
Southwark’s deputy leader, Stephanie Cryan, has said the act may turn out to be “the sticking plaster on the severed artery” amid seemingly intractable problems of high rent and housing shortages. She told the Guardian: “The good news is we are preventing more homelessness. But how do we fund it? That’s the worry.”
The government was lambasted by the National Audit Office last year for ignoring homelessness and failing to understand or investigate the causes of a visible and growing problem costing the public purse more than £1bn a year. Public anxiety over increased rough sleeping grew during the freezing weather this winter. Since 2011, the numbers of homeless households in temporary accommodation have risen by 60%, while official rough sleeping figures are up 169% since 2010.
Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, has said the government sees the act as a sign of its determination to “break the homelessness cycle”. The Conservatives’ 2017 election manifesto pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eradicate it by 2027.
The government has set aside £72m over three years to help councils in England hire extra staff to cope with the expected rise in demand for homelessness assistance. Councils say this is woefully inadequate to deal with the higher costs of dealing with a housing instability problem that shows little signs of abating.
The shadow housing secretary, John Healey, called the bill a “useful step” in getting early help for those at risk of losing their home. But he added: “Legislation can’t remove homelessness and ministers must now tackle the root causes which means making good on deep cuts to funding, strengthening legal rights for private renters and building many more new social rented homes”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010