Beatrice Orchard, St Mungo’s Head of Policy, Campaigns and Research, writes about our priorities as the Homelessness Reduction Act and other measures seek to end homelessness
The Homelessness Reduction Act comes into force today. This is a landmark piece of legislation with the potential to have a hugely positive impact on the lives of many more people who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, compared to the previous system. It places new duties on local authorities to help prevent and relieve homelessness for people regardless of ‘priority need’ criteria.
This follows news last week of a new initiative to reduce rough sleeping and a decision to reinstate entitlement to housing benefit for all 18-21 year olds. These are very welcome steps towards ending the misery of sleeping rough, an aim that surely unites us all.
In 2016, we at St Mungo’s launched our Stop the Scandal campaign calling for a new national strategy to end rough sleeping and this is what we want to see next.
The government has committed to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and to eliminate it altogether by 2027. To meet this pledge, a ministerial taskforce has been established to produce a new rough sleeping strategy. A Rough Sleeping Advisory Panel made up of homeless sector representatives, including St Mungo’s, is providing guidance to this ministerial taskforce.
Rough sleeping has increased by 169% since 2010. On any given night, 4,751 people sleep rough in England.
Behind these stark figures are people who are living each day at risk of violence, abuse and serious ill health. We have evidence of this from the people themselves, from our outreach teams and our research with people who have experienced rough sleeping. Put simply, it is a scandal.
That’s why it is good to see a sense of urgency from the government.
We agree immediate action is needed to move people off the streets and out of danger. Effective outreach services are part of this. So is emergency accommodation and access to mental health and substance use treatment and support. This must also be aligned with measures to prevent people sleeping rough in the first place and long term support to ensure people don’t return to the street.
The new strategy must protect and expand existing services, which support people off the streets. That includes supported housing, which is the primary route out of rough sleeping for people who need both a safe place to stay and support to recover from homelessness and associated problems, including poor health and experience of violence and abuse.
However, the government’s current proposals to change the way homeless hostels and other short term supported housing is funded puts the future of these life-saving services at risk.
As rough sleeping continues to rise nationally, available places in supported housing have fallen due to major cuts in local authority funding. Research by Homeless Link found there was an 18% reduction in bed spaces in homelessness accommodation between 2010 and 2016.
Despite this, the government now wants local authorities to become responsible for funding the housing costs in hostels, in addition to the support services which councils are already struggling to fund.
Instead, we think the government should adjust its plans in line with calls from the supported housing sector and continue to provide funding for housing costs via the welfare system.
Beyond this, ministers will need to consider the role for innovative approaches, such as Housing First, which has proven successful for ending rough sleeping among those with the most complex problems. Government investment in three Housing First pilots is, again, welcome, but ministers will need to establish long term funding arrangements to make this approach work.
An integrated rough sleeping strategy will also need to be underpinned by a legal framework to help ensure services benefit from sustainable funding and can respond to fluctuations in demand. The Homelessness Reduction Act is a good start, using new legal duties to shift the focus of councils in England towards providing help to prevent homelessness in the first place.
But if the Act is to be a success, councils must be able to help those in danger of sleeping rough find the right housing and support. Sadly, the reality is the unacceptable shortage of affordable housing options for too many people, and this is another long term challenge for the ministerial taskforce.
St Mungo’s has always supported people to move off the streets into accommodation and to access the services that can help them rebuild their lives. This can take days, weeks, sometimes years.
We don’t think it is an easy challenge the government has accepted, but we share their ambition of ending rough sleeping and welcome the opportunity to help get on with it.