Is the Homelessness Reduction Act doing enough to prevent rough sleeping?

    The Homelessness Reduction Act is one of the most significant changes to England’s homelessness legislation in recent decades. It was introduced last year with the aim of preventing people from becoming homeless. However, as the number of people sleeping rough in London rises, Amy Fleming, Public Affairs Officer, writes about the limits to the HRA.

    Rough sleeping in England has risen by 165% since 2010. This is nothing short of a national crisis. But worryingly, the latest statistics suggest the problem is getting even worse.

    The Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) statistics released last month revealed a 50% increase in the number of new people rough sleeping in London compared to the same period last year. The figures are stark – more than 2,000 people were seen newly sleeping rough on London’s streets between July and September 2019.

    The Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) was intended to make sure that councils step in earlier to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. At St Mungo’s, we were strongly supportive of the Act’s passage through parliament, and were pleased to see the new law come into force in April 2018.

    The Act placed a new duty on local housing authorities to take reasonable steps to help any eligible person secure accommodation, regardless of whether or not they’re considered to be in ‘priority need’.

    In practice, this means that those approaching their council for help receive support in the form of a Personal Housing Plan (PHP), which sets out actions for both the individual and the council to take to prevent their homelessness.

    The Government recently asked for feedback on the impact that the Act is having so far. Unfortunately, we responded with evidence that highlighted that it is, in fact, failing to prevent people from sleeping rough.

    What are the problems?

    Crucially, the HRA does not include a duty on local authorities to provide accommodation to those who are not considered to be in priority need, even if they are at immediate risk of sleeping rough.

    CHAIN data shows that, from August 2018 to July 2019, 45% of UK citizens who used the London No Second Night Out service for people newly rough sleeping had approached their council for help in the 12 months before they started sleeping rough. This data is supported by St Mungo’s staff, who say they regularly see people entering No Second Night Out hubs with a PHP from their local authority.

    There is also a large proportion of people not from the UK who are sleeping rough but are not eligible for any assistance under the HRA. These people are also unlikely to have access to benefits, housing or healthcare so are left desperate and destitute.

    On top of this, the Homelessness Reduction Act has been implemented in an environment where spiralling housing costs, increasing insecurity for private renters and cuts to homelessness services have led to 4,677 people sleeping rough in England on a given night. Local authorities are currently being put in a very difficult position with limited means to support those who approach them for help.

    What needs to change?

    We think there is still room to improve the Homelessness Reduction Act with a new ‘Somewhere Safe to Stay’ legal duty to protect people at immediate risk of sleeping rough. The duty would require councils to provide a safe place to stay, such as emergency accommodation, so that no one would have to sleep rough after seeking help from their council. This would enable people to have their needs assessed quickly – away from the dangers of the street – and for a longer-term plan to secure settled housing to be put in place.

    However, the Act cannot exist in isolation. The issues which cause people to become homeless, and the problems facing those who are already homeless, must also be addressed.

    With the general election just around the corner, we believe the next Government has the power to make sure that everybody in our society has a safe and stable home, by putting in place a plan that commits to:

    • Improving access to truly affordable housing
    • Strengthening support through the welfare system
    • Providing long-term, guaranteed funding for services which prevent homelessness and quickly get people off the street and into a stable home
    • Providing more support for non-UK nationals sleeping rough

    Without these changes, the Homelessness Reduction Act in its current form will simply not be able to prevent people from living, and dying, on the streets.

    We have joined five other leading homelessness charities to call on all political parties to end homelessness this general election. Read our joint manifesto.

    End Homelessness Now – our General Election campaign

    General Election Twitter

    In this blog Beatrice Orchard, Head of Policy, Campaigns and Research explains what we’re doing to influence party manifestos and keep homelessness high profile during this general election campaign.

    We should all have a safe place to call home.

    Instead, rough sleeping has soared 165% since 2010 and thousands of families and individuals across Britain are stuck in emergency accommodation and sleeping on friends’ floors or sofas.

    For many, homelessness is a death sentence. Let’s never forget that 726 people died while homeless in England and Wales in 2018.

    At St Mungo’s, we don’t think this is acceptable and we’re certain the public doesn’t either. That’s why we’re working with five other homelessness charities ahead of the general election next month to call on every political party to commit to a plan to #EndHomelessness, and we’re encouraging everyone to join in.

    The concern over rising homelessness hasn’t gone unnoticed by politicians on the campaign trail. Boris Johnson has called homelessness “a scourge of our society” and Jeremy Corbyn said rough sleeping was a “disgrace”. It’s a good start, but now we need to get them talking about the right solutions to ending all forms of homelessness.

    At St Mungo’s we know we can be more influential when working in partnership with others, which is why we’ve joined forces with Centrepoint, Crisis, Depaul, Homeless Link and Shelter this general election.

    What could be more persuasive than six of the country’s leading homelessness charities working together to review the evidence, listen to the lived experience of our clients, and produce a joint manifesto outlining the reforms we all agree are needed.

    The next Government has the power to make sure that everybody in our society has a safe and stable home, by putting in place a plan that commits to:

    • Improving access to truly affordable housing.
    • Strengthening support through the welfare system.
    • Providing long-term, guaranteed funding for services which prevent homelessness and quickly get people off the street and into a stable home.

    Nearly £1 billion per year has been cut from homelessness services since 2008/9. Housing benefit doesn’t cover the cost of rent, and there is a dire shortage of social housing. We want as many people as possible to help us point this out to the candidates and parties campaigning in the election, and encourage them to include the right solutions in their manifestos.

    As always, we’ll also be supporting our clients to have their say by helping them to register to vote and seeking their input throughout the campaign.

    Find out how you can help too by visiting the End Homelessness Now campaign website and join the call to #EndHomelessness in this general election.

    A critical issue

    Dominic Williamson, Executive Director of Strategy and Policy, St Mungo’s, talks about the review he undertook into our approach to working with Home Office enforcement teams between 2010 and 2017.

    Photo of Dominic Williamson and the Housing Minister talking to a St Mungo's outreach team during an evening shift.
    Dominic Williamson (right) and the Housing Minister talking to a St Mungo’s outreach team during an evening shift.

    Today (5 Nov 2019) St Mungo’s publishes an internal review I was asked to undertake by our board of trustees in response to criticism of St Mungo’s for “collaborating” in the Government’s “hostile environment” migration policy.

    Our charity has spent 50 years helping people who are homeless and destitute on the streets around us. The desire to help was, and still is, melded with a real of sense of injustice and anger that our society seems unable – or perhaps unwilling – to guarantee the very basic of safety nets that might prevent our fellow citizens ending up deprived of dignity and the most essential necessity of life: a home.

    This societal failing seems more intractable when the people are from elsewhere. Fifty years ago it was often people from Scotland or Ireland on the streets of London. This decade, alongside growing numbers of UK citizens sleeping rough, the “outsider”, has been more likely to be from Poland or the Roma community in Romania.

    Over the years St Mungo’s has channelled that sense of solidarity and anger into developing our services and into campaigning for change. For us, the two go hand in hand.

    Common goal

    By the mid-2000s, government investment in services and reform meant the numbers on the streets had fallen by two thirds. Part of this success came from a close relationship between local authorities, charities and other partners, working together in partnership with a common goal of reaching out to and helping people to come off the streets for good. In some situations joint work included an enforcement element, for example, working with the police to tackle large encampments in order to reach exploited or vulnerable people.

    While the numbers of UK citizens on the streets was falling, the accession to the EU of East European countries and the resulting migration brought a new group of people on to the streets. This was of such concern that in 2008 the Labour government’s new rough sleeping strategy promised that the Home Office would assist in finding solutions.

    Engagement by the Home Office started as a pilot in Westminster in early 2010 and then extended to other areas in the next few years. Home Office Immigration Compliance and Enforcement (HO-ICE) teams conducted joint operations with local councils often working alongside outreach workers, including teams from St Mungo’s and other charities. The HO-ICE teams issued “minded to remove” warning letters explaining to the individual that if they continued to sleep rough, not exercise their EU treaty rights nor engage with realistic options off the streets, they could be detained and removed back to their home country in the EU.

    For the homelessness charities involved this approach was seen as an extension of the “assertive outreach” model that had become established good practice over the previous decade. The warning of potential action by the Home Office was considered to be a proactive tool, giving outreach workers time to engage and support a change in behaviour before the threat of any enforcement action became a reality. The approach included the option to share basic information without consent as part of efforts to encourage people to take up options away from the dangers of the street.

    Were St Mungo’s and the other charities wrong to work in this way?

    Dying on the streets

    During the review I spoke to colleagues who felt strongly for and against this approach.

    Some colleagues said that by working in this way people would stop trusting outreach workers, avoid being found or even become aggressive towards them.

    On the other side, those who supported it strongly felt this joint work was morally justified by the reality of the alternative: growing numbers of people left to become unwell, and frequently dying on the streets.

    I heard some horrific stories from colleagues about the conditions in which people were living. One worker graphically described stepping through human excrement to get to a hidden area in a park where people were living in makeshift structures. Another explained how people were driven to stealing alcohol-based hand sanitiser from hospitals to drink. Emails I found in the review showed our teams sometimes working with severely mentally ill people where it was essential to establish where the person was from and that meant contacting the Home Office.

    In many other cases it was clear that outreach colleagues were able to advocate for EU citizens, support them into work or tenancies and help them demonstrate to the Home Office that they were starting to exercise their treaty rights.

    Change in approach

    Then in May 2016 the Government introduced a change in policy that began to treat rough sleeping in itself as a breach of EU treaty rights (a policy which was ruled unlawful by a judicial review in December 2017). This policy change meant the window of opportunity to positively engage with clients became shorter and the rapid use of detention and removal became more likely.

    As a consequence from July 2016 outreach managers at St Mungo’s agreed a change in approach, which said that working with the Home Office should become a last resort.

    In the years before this, the Home Secretary Theresa May had announced her intention to make Britain a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants. This was quickly followed by the infamous advertising vans telling illegal migrants to “Go Home” and legislation requiring landlords to check the migration status of their tenants.

    Campaigners against the hostile environment practice and rhetoric began to see any charity working with the Home Office as “collaborators”. St Mungo’s suddenly found itself the target of critical media reports and activist campaigning. For colleagues in outreach teams who had worked tirelessly to find solutions for homeless migrants, this criticism was particularly upsetting.

    Critical lessons

    This has been a difficult and painful experience for St Mungo’s. Which is why it is important that the review has highlighted a number of critical lessons for us. We made a number of mistakes – including not communicating our change in approach to all teams clearly enough, which meant that one outreach team out of 18 continued to share information with the Home Office until February 2017.

    We also need to be very careful when we are under public scrutiny to make sure we know all the facts before responding.  And we need to be better at explaining our position where we are taking risks in the interests of our clients.

    The executive team accepts that we could have done better. That said, the review found that St Mungo’s always acted lawfully and our outreach focus was, and continues to be the welfare of those we seek to help. Critically, I found no evidence that any individual suffered harm as a result of our approach.

    Our policy on information sharing today.

    My review dealt with the past, but going forward St Mungo’s is committed to continuing to deliver services to help migrants who are sleeping rough. I am proud of what we do to provide options to people who are destitute and have too few options because of their migration status.

    Today we are accommodating more than 50 people who have no recourse to public funds whilst we work with them and our partners in the migrant advice sector to resolve their immigration status and help them find a home for good.

    We will continue to evolve our approach but always with the safety, wellbeing and rights of our clients at the forefront.

    And St Mungo’s policy on sharing information today is clear: we will not share any information about our clients with the Home Office without the client’s full and informed consent unless we are legally obliged to do so. If the request for information from the Home Office is related to safeguarding concerns, the senior safeguarding lead will assess whether releasing any information is necessary and proportionate. If they find data sharing is justified, the information will be shared with the local authority safeguarding team only, not directly with the Home Office.

    The challenge continues

    As we publish the review, the situation in relation to people who are sleeping rough remains complex and challenging. We will continue to do what we can to reach out to and help more people off the streets, whatever their immigration status.

    My great hope is that going forward everyone who is concerned about this crisis on our streets will work together to urge the next government to take real action to support people to come in from the cold and to prevent more people dying on our streets.

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