Dominic Williamson, Executive Director of Strategy and Policy, explains why we’re launching our Save Hostels Rebuild Lives campaign…
In August 2016, our CEO Howard Sinclair wrote in The Guardian about how government proposals on future funding were creating great uncertainty for organisations like St Mungo’s that provide supported housing for homeless people.
Nearly a year on, that uncertainty remains and the future funding for these vital services is still up in the air.
So this week St Mungo’s is launching a new campaign – Save Hostels Rebuild Lives – to draw attention to the issue. Our call to government is: “Stop and take the time to get this right”.
At one level the issue is simple: every year supported housing, like hostels, helps thousands of homeless people escape the streets and rebuild their lives. Other supported housing prevents homelessness, for example, for young people at risk. These services will be essential to achieving the government’s own goal of reducing rough sleeping – and so they must be protected from further funding cuts.
However, because the way the costs of these services is funded is quite complex, getting wider interest in and support for the issue is not easy.
I’ll try to explain. Bear with me – this may get a bit technical!
Supported housing for homeless people includes short term hostels, assessment centres as well as longer term housing with support. They are a subset of a much larger supported housing sector which includes domestic violence refuges, sheltered housing and extra care housing for elderly people. Some services have 24 hour staffing, others have 9-to-5 support depending on the client group.
The cost of the staff providing the support are met through contracts commissioned by local authorities, through what used to be known as the Supporting People scheme. The housing costs are covered by the rent, which for most people is met through their individual entitlement to housing benefit. This includes housing management staff costs and the cost of the physical building itself including facilities such as lifts or fire alarms systems, day-to-day repairs and the long-term maintenance of the fabric of the building.
Over the past six or seven years, as local council budgets have been squeezed, so has the money available for the support contracts. As a result, some homelessness services have shut or had the level of support reduced.
‘Not possible to deliver supported housing within LHA cap’
Last year the government announced changes that would potentially be even more devastating. Driven by the roll out of Universal Credit and pressure to reduce welfare spending, DWP ministers set out plans to cap people’s housing benefit entitlement at the local housing allowance rate (LHA). This is rate varies considerably across the country and is tagged to the lower end of the local private rented sector market.
In many parts of the country it is simply not possible to deliver supported housing within the LHA cap. Particularly in the current funding climate, where local authorities are already strapped for cash, the government’s proposal to make up any shortfall through a discretionary local top-up fund will undoubtedly lead to a further cuts in funding – and ultimately put crucial services at risk of closure.
Over the past 12 months, St Mungo’s and other organisations such as the National Housing Federation have been working to model the potential impact of these changes on services. We have responded to a government consultation and submitted evidence to a joint enquiry by the DWP and CLG select committees. Their report agreed that that the government must take more time to develop a sustainable and secure future funding system that protects these housing and support services.
Before the General Election ministers had been listening to the arguments and promised to protect services. Meetings have started with new ministers to make sure they also understand the risks. We are pleased to be part of those discussion and at a meeting recently our CEO Howard invited Caroline Dinenage MP, the DWP minister now in charge of the reforms, to come and visit one of our hostels to learn more.
‘Helping people off the streets for nearly five decades’
St Mungo’s has been helping homeless people off the streets for nearly five decades. Over that time have seen that unless the funding regime is strong and secure, services for homeless people are often among the first to be cut when budgets are tight. Cuts to supported housing have undoubtedly contributed to the rapid rise in rough sleeping since 2010.
This really is a matter of life and death. Sleeping rough is dangerous – the average age of death of someone sleeping rough is 47.
Each night at St Mungo’s we provide housing and support to 2,700 people. We work to build on people’s strengths so they can recover from the issues that have led to their homelessness. A decent and safe place live and good quality support are crucial.
There are many fantastic supported housing services across the country which seek to empower people and have been very successful in getting people back on their feet. But there is also some poor quality provision, and hostels may not the best route for everyone.
‘Helping people with complex needs to secure a tenancy’
Over the past few years there has been growing interest in an approach called ‘Housing First’. Originating in New York as an alternative to the patchy emergency shelter provision that is the norm in the USA, the Housing First approach is based on helping people with complex needs to secure a tenancy first along with a long term and flexible package of support around them. There is a growing evidence base from Europe and the UK that this approach can be effective and the government has responded positively to calls to scale this up as part of the solution to growing rough sleeping.
St Mungo’s is one of the main providers of Housing First projects in England. We are seeing how this model can work well for some people and we support the government’s intention to further pilot Housing First on a larger scale as part of the pathway to help people off the streets. However, supported housing will remain as the backbone of homelessness provision and over the past decades has helped thousands to move to a life off the streets.
‘Dedicated to continously improving our services’
At St Mungo’s we are dedicated to consciously improving our services and excited about the prospect of having a wider evidence-based debate about what service models work best for different people.
But while we gather and analyse our evidence, we need to protect existing, tried and tested services that are currently supporting thousands of vulnerable men and women up and down the country away from rough sleeping.
We are facing a number of significant challenges. The roll out of Universal Credit and the related phasing out of housing benefit means that the funding system for supported housing will need to change. Restrictions on benefits for 18-21 year olds means that our accommodation for young people could become silted up.
Finding a sustainable funding solution will require time and careful consideration of the full range of options. The government should – and can – take that time because housing benefit is not due to be fully phased out until 2022.
That is why we need your help now. I hope you will join us by signing and sharing our petition using the hashtag #Savehostels.