We launched this inquiry in light of evidence that homelessness was increasing. We wanted both to get a clearer picture of levels of homelessness and to understand the pressures that affect homeless people. Throughout our inquiry, it was clear that the term ‘homeless’ covers a wide range of circumstances. The most visible form of homelessness is rough sleeping, with people sleeping and living on the streets, in parks and in shop doorways. However there is also a significant number of people who are homeless but are in temporary accommodation and night shelters, or rely on a series of short-term arrangements and the kindness of friends and family. Whilst less visible, it is essential that the ‘hidden homeless’ are taken into account in any discussion on how homelessness can be reduced.
We have found that homelessness is undoubtedly increasing. The Department recognises that its statistics are not all currently robust enough to be given the status of national statistics, but the picture is clear. It is important to have reliable evidence on the groups among which the increase is occurring. Data from CHAIN (the Combined Homelessness and Information Network), a multi-agency database recording rough sleeping in London, indicates that the greatest proportional increase in homelessness was among those who had been homeless for two consecutive years, suggesting that current intervention measures are not succeeding in preventing homelessness from becoming entrenched. We are therefore calling for enhanced monitoring of local authorities’ homelessness reduction work.
There is a variety of factors causing the increase in homelessness, principal among them is the cost and availability of housing. The ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST) in the private rented sector is a major cause: once an AST has ended, tenants are often unable to find anywhere that they can afford. The demand for housing pushes rents up, so the gap between rents charged and the level of Local Housing Allowance available increases. The challenges of the private rented sector are exacerbated by a shortage of social housing. It is widely accepted that the country needs to be building more homes and we support the Government’s aspirations for home ownership, but many people simply cannot afford to buy a home, even with the support mechanisms introduced. In areas where there is a clear local need, homes for affordable rent must be built.
Much of our evidence covered the role of local authorities and how they allocate limited resources to support homeless people. We are supportive of local authorities and recognise the challenges they face, and many local authorities work hard to protect some of their most vulnerable residents. But it is not acceptable that the level of support offered to vulnerable people can vary significantly across the country. We heard that many homeless people seeking support from their council are made to feel as if they were at fault and that councils can take steps to discourage applications. People who are judged as not being in priority need, and therefore not owed the full homelessness duty, are also poorly served. Councils have a duty to provide advice and guidance to such people, but too often this advice and guidance is meaningless and ineffectual. The Government should review and reinforce the statutory Code of Practice to ensure it outlines clearly the levels of service that local authorities must provide and encourages regular training of staff to ensure a sympathetic and sensitive service. We also considered the practice of local authorities housing homeless families in areas outside their administrative boundaries. We believe that this should only ever be an action of last resort. We would like to see a clear statement of intent from the Government with regards to the levels of service that homeless people can expect to receive from their local council. This must be reinforced with monitoring so that homeless individuals across the country can benefit from effective support and an end to their homelessness at the earliest opportunity. We are confident that the Private Member’s Bill tabled by Mr Blackman, and co-sponsored by all the other members of the Committee, will contribute to achieving this.
Our inquiry also considered the experiences of especially vulnerable groups and people with multiple complex needs. A particular concern is the prevalence of poor mental health and we call on the Government to produce an action plan to address this. We also note the vital work done by refuges supporting victims of domestic violence and ask that the Government consider providing additional resources. We are currently awaiting the outcome of the Government’s review of welfare reforms and the impact on supported accommodation but the Government should give certainty to the sector as a matter of urgency. We believe that all supported accommodation schemes should be exempt from the proposed reduction in rents.
On the strength of what we have learned throughout our inquiry, we have concluded that the scale of homelessness in this country is such that a renewed, cross-Departmental Government strategy is needed. We agree with Howard Sinclair, Chief Executive of St Mungo’s, that “Homelessness is everyone’s issue and it is not inevitable”. All Departments need to contribute to the ending of homelessness by subscribing to a common approach. We will revisit many aspects of our report in twelve months’ time to see what progress has been made.
3 August 2016