Bob Blackman is MP for Harrow East.
For vulnerable people to have nowhere to call home is deeply shameful. Without the stability of shelter and security, those who find themselves homeless often spiral further.
At this time of year we often think more of those in this situation. Campaigns often spring up and call on the public to do more to help those affected by homelessness. While this is most welcome, and to be encouraged, we must collectively focus on the issue year-round if we are to achieve the end goal of eliminating it.
Every part of the Government must get to grips with the issue as homelessness is not inevitable. We know that in most cases it is preventable and in every case it can be ended.
Crisis published a report in the autumn which set out the changes departments should be making now to prevent homelessness for more people.
This includes the Department for Work and Pensions establishing a network of housing specialists in all Jobcentres, so that homelessness is prevented for more people going onto Universal Credit.
It also recommends the adoption of a Critical Time Intervention approach by the Ministry of Justice, Department for Education, and the Home Office. Through Critical Time Intervention, people at risk of homelessness are provided with time-limited support during a transitional period. The model can be successfully used to prevent homelessness among people leaving prison, care or asylum support accommodation.
These changes must be underpinned by legal duties on public bodies to ensure that homelessness is consistently and effectively prevented whenever it can be.
There are already good examples of where such work is taking place. In Newcastle, Jobcentres have been working in partnership with the city council and the local Crisis service to embed a housing and homelessness approach that is enabling work coaches to identify and support people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Preliminary findings are that this approach is preventing homelessness in a third of cases.
To ensure a prevention culture is embedded across government departments, the government’s Rough Sleeping and Homelessness Reduction Taskforce must now lead on developing a strong cross-government strategy to prevent homelessness, which recognises the critical role of every department in ending this scourge.
Within the Rough Sleeping Strategy a ‘wider strategy’ is mentioned multiple times. However, campaigners are concerned with the lack of momentum seen to date.
The Homelessness Reduction Act (2017), which I was proud to lead through parliament, makes significant inroads in making prevention a central part of the statutory homelessness framework. New legal duties for local authorities mean they are now required to step in earlier to prevent homelessness and to do so for more people. It also introduced a new requirement for some public authorities to refer people to the local authority if they are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Whilst the Act represents a huge step forward, we need to build upon it so that every public body that can prevent homelessness has a legal duty to do so. The primary responsibility remains with local authorities, even though in many cases they won’t be the first organisation that is aware when someone is at risk.
Sadly there is evidence that in London, local authorities are still waiting until people are actually homeless before offering assistance. This is expensive and has an unnecessary impact on vulnerable people: we need to change the culture of local authorities, so that they intervene early to prevent people from being left without a home.
Too many opportunities to prevent homelessness are being missed. There are 236,000 people across Britain experiencing the worst forms of homelessness. This includes people sleeping rough, sofa surfing and living in tents, squats, hostels and unsuitable accommodation. For people who experience homelessness, average age of death is just 47 compared to 77 for the general population. They are much more likely to develop complex needs and suffer from ill mental health and drug dependencies. In addition, if a person has experienced homelessness once, they are sadly much more likely to experience it again. Shocking figures released earlier this month by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that more than 440 people died whilst homeless in the UK within the past year.
Not only are the human costs of failing to prevent homelessness immense but it also comes at a huge cost to the taxpayer. If 40,000 people were prevented from experiencing just one year of homelessness, then it is estimated that public spending would fall by £370m.
This means that too many opportunities to prevent homelessness are being missed. This is especially true for people leaving the care of the state, including those leaving prison and the care system. Figures show that 15 per cent of male and 13 per cent of female prisoners serving short sentences were released without a home to go to. Meanwhile, a shocking 26 per cent of care leavers had sofa-surfed since leaving care and 14 per cent had slept rough.
This does not need to happen. Public services working with prisoners, young people in care, and other groups who have an increased risk of homelessness can act to make sure that no one becomes homeless when they leave the care of the state.
Another interesting and important campaign is one recently launched by St Mungo’s. Under the mantle of ‘Home for Good’, and coinciding with the release of new research into the role of floating support services in ending rough sleeping, they are calling for: an increase of social homes for people who have experienced homelessness; improvements to private renting; and a new programme to provide long-term funding for homelessness services.
At Housing Communities and Local Government parliamentary questions I recently asked the minister what assessment has been made of local authorities in their efforts to help rough sleepers into homes of their own, following the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. While I received a half response, as they missed the start of the question, they confirmed a review of the Act after 24 months and reported that ‘local councils are impressed with how well it is being embedded’.
We know homelessness can be prevented, but to do this we need the commitment of every government department and public authority.