James Wild is MP for North West Norfolk, and is a member of the Public Accounts Committee.
Putting up a Christmas tree is a simple act that most people take for granted. But as the Purfleet Trust, a charity in my constituency, explained to me, for someone they helped who used to sleep on the streets buying a tree marked the moment when their accommodation turned into a home.
One of the few positive effects of the pandemic was that the “Everyone In” initiative accelerated the Government’s manifesto pledge to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. During my time as an adviser in the Cabinet Office, I was repeatedly told that achieving the previous target of doing this any sooner than by by 2027 was not possible. That owed much to previous Treasury reluctance to fund the plans, so this is an issue the Prime Minister has rightly prioritised.
In the Public Accounts Committee report published today, we recognise the “considerable achievement” of “Everyone In”, which has helped more than 37,000 people into accommodation. Despite not having a specific plan for a pandemic, the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, under Robert Jenrick’s direction, acted “swiftly” in conjunction with local authorities and charities to ensure that people sleeping rough were helped off the streets. It is estimated that action helped avert 20,000 infections and 200 deaths.
Now it is essential to ensure this progress is not lost. Our report calls for the 2018 rough sleeping strategy to be updated as a priority to reflect government’s manifesto commitment. Before the pandemic hit, Baroness Louise Casey had agreed to review the existing strategy, but this was understandably put on hold as she helped lead the Covid response. In her evidence to us, she said that the review was still needed and should be more expansive, considering “wider aspects of homelessness, particularly families in temporary accommodation”.
Clarity on what “ending” rough-sleeping means, how such a target will be measured, and then reported against is now needed. Snapshot data showed 2,688 people sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2020, down from 4,266 in the year before the pandemic. However, the “Everyone In” campaign has helped nine times that many people, which shows that the size of the rough sleeping population and those at risk of rough sleeping is far higher than the snapshot data. While I wasn’t wholly surprised when the MHCLG Permanent Secretary was unable to clarify what the goal meant in practice, an agreed definition is needed urgently.
For the PAC, “ending” implies more than just housing people captured in snapshot data and requires a plan that addresses long-term factors that cause people to start sleeping rough in the first place, including the wider availability of supported and affordable housing.
As well available accommodation, the new strategy needs to reflect the fact that more than 80 per cent of rough sleepers have mental health needs and a significant majority have substance abuse problems. This underlines the importance of wraparound support as per the Housing First model. By bringing forward the Next Steps Accommodation plan to deliver 3,300 houses for people sleeping rough by the end of March, my borough council for instance will be providing six properties which will offer more personalised support for people with complex needs.
Since being elected, I have worked closely with the Purfleet Trust which helps homeless people to build the confidence and skills they need to lead more fulfilling lives. As they tell me, in many ways getting someone into accommodation is the easy part. The challenge is then to keep them there. They are rightly proud of their track record in helping people to move into jobs by developing close relationships with local employers.
One area I believe deserves more attention as the strategy is refreshed is the role of day centres. These are often the first port of call for people on the street. By getting people in for a meal and offering a safe space to sit down and help them to deal with some of the longer-term issues they face, these centres play an important role.
And, of course, a strategy is only valuable insofar as it is funded. £700 million was made available to local authorities in 2020-21 through a combination of spending brought forward and new funding. A further £750 million will be provided to help tackle rough sleeping over the next year. However, both local authorities and the voluntary sector are calling for long-term strategic funding. We recommend individual funding streams are aligned and that the government addresses the importance of multi-year funding certainty.
A further focus must be on improving resilience in the sector. The toll on those on the frontline who have gone from helping people keep tenancies to dealing with people in chaotic circumstances is immense. These roles are akin to specialist social workers and when funding is short term, charities can only offer limited contracts. The uncertainty over how long a role will last makes it much harder to find people with the skills to do this vital work. In addition, longer term funding would avoid councils and charities spending time bidding into multiple small pots.
Last month, this site raised again the issues of non-UK nationals who account for a quarter of all those sleeping rough. Under “Everyone In”, the public health priority was helping people whether they were from Bromley or Portugal. Our report highlights that the messaging to local authorities has become more ambiguous as the pandemic has continued. 50% of those put into emergency accommodation in London, for instance, were ineligible for benefits.
This goes to the cross-cutting nature of the problem – solving it will require the Government to address rough-sleeping and immigration issues together and to provide clear guidance to local authorities on what this means for the support they offer this group.
When the pandemic hit, the government rightly prioritised people sleeping rough for urgent support. Local authorities, the voluntary sector, hotel chains, and many more organisations stepped up to meet this goal. To build on this success requires a refreshed plan urgently to provide the clarity, funding, and regular reporting to achieve the objective the government has rightly set to end rough sleeping.