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:

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.