Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Last Friday night, I joined hundreds of people who slept in cardboard boxes next to Birmingham Cathedral to raise money for St Basil’s, a local youth charity that works to make sure homelessness is never part of growing up.
Rough sleeping is the most visible form of homelessness and an issue which people across the West Midlands feel very strongly about, and are coming together to tackle.
For example, Langar Aid, a Sikh charitable group, runs regular feeds in Coventry; Homeless One, a Muslim charity, does the same in Birmingham; and the Catholic church has opened Tabor House, a new permanent night shelter. Football clubs, property businesses, and our major bus company have all made donations to our work to tackle rough sleeping, and countless people volunteer their time for homeless causes in the region.
The Government launched their Rough Sleeping Strategy this August, and is financially supporting councils with funding through the Homelessness Prevention Trailblazers, Rough Sleeping Initiative and Somewhere Safe to Stay pilots. But there is much more to be done.
Though there was a small reduction at the annual count last year, rough sleeping is still a huge challenge in the West Midlands, in particular in Birmingham City Centre. Our councils are working harder than ever to help people off the streets, with their housing and street intervention teams on the frontline every day.
In the West Midlands, councils have come together to pilot a scheme called Housing First, which plans to provide around 600 units of accommodation across the West Midlands over three years. This work is led by Birmingham City Council and the West Midlands Combined Authority, and funded with a £9.6 million grant from Government.
Housing First gives entrenched rough sleepers with the most complex needs access to accommodation, with intensive support to enable them to recover from issues such as mental health or substance misuse, and to sustain their tenancies. The first rough sleepers in Birmingham are being housed in this Housing First accommodation this Christmas.
But rough sleeping is only part of a much larger issue. There are thousands of others in the West Midlands who are living in temporary accommodation, sofa surfing or living in hostels. Indeed, if we were to only focus on supporting those who are currently sleeping on the streets, we would not solve the underlying problem.
In the West Midlands, the councils, charities and businesses who form the Homelessness Taskforce, aim to “design out” homelessness from the system. To make a long-term change to homelessness in the region, the focus must be on prevention: stopping people at risk of homelessness becoming homeless in the first place. We are working on five priorities with the Taskforce:
Firstly, we need to increase the supply of affordable, accessible housing. This means working with housing associations to enable them to build more homes, and linking affordability to ability to pay. Councils have their role to play too, and the Chancellor’s lifting of the Housing Revenue Account cap will definitely help in this regard. We have seen some progress, with the number of affordable homes completed in the region up 33 per cent last year, led by councils in Sandwell and Birmingham, but much more needs to be done.
Secondly, we need to understand in detail the financial triggers which lead to homelessness for those on low incomes. The top reason for homelessness is ending of assured shorthold tenancies, often due to rent arrears. Unexpected expenses or changes to benefits can tip those on low incomes into financial difficulties and homelessness. This is why monitoring the rollout of Universal Credit, and making changes where necessary, is so important to the policy’s overall success.
I have worked with charities to lobby Government on the detail of housing and welfare policy proposals. After looking at proposals in detail and listening to the sector, the Government confirmed in March this year that all 18-21 year olds would continue to have access to Housing Benefit.
Thirdly, we are working to provide good employment opportunities for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Part of this is about educating employers on how they can support their employees at the time they are most at risk. When I was at John Lewis for example, we had a hardship fund, which would allow managers to support their employees if they were going through unforeseen circumstances.
We also need to support employers in providing jobs for those who are homeless, who may also have other complex needs. At a business breakfast recently, I was asked, “what can we do to help rough sleepers?” I challenged the audience to hire someone who was homeless into their business.
A few weeks later, I met a café owner in Birmingham who had been there that morning. She told me that she had taken on the challenge and had employed a homeless man to wait tables in her café. She had known the challenges she might face as an employer, but had taken a risk to do the right thing. SIFA Fireside, a homeless charity in Birmingham, runs a programme called ‘Work It Out’ which supports SME employers in taking on those who are or have been homeless.
Fourthly, we are providing advice and information to make sure that citizens, charities and businesses know how they can help. Last winter, we launched Change Into Action with Birmingham City Council, an alternative giving project which encourages citizens to give to a trusted scheme, where all donations are administered by experts from street teams and charities who ensure that every pound spent helps rough sleepers off the streets. We also need to consider how we make it easy for those seeking information and advice to access information which helps them make informed decisions about their own housing situation.
Finally, we are working across agencies to ensure that they are effective in working together. Whether that is our work to train 500,000 people in the region in mental health first aid, or our work with housing providers to achieve our ambition that no one should be made homeless from social housing. We are building on local collaboration which already exists, and has been strengthened by the Homelessness Reduction Act.
If we are truly to tackle homelessness, we must avoid simple explanations or quick “fixes”. Those who work in the sector know all too well the hundreds of reasons that people get into these circumstances. To “design out” homelessness for the long term, we need to “design in prevention” across our mainstream policies and services. That means across government as well as at a regional and local level. And it requires sustained investment in our public services: in councils, in housing, in mental health and substance misuse services.
As Conservatives, we must make good on our promises to reduce homelessness and rough sleeping in the 2017 Election Manifesto. We should not shy away from this issue because it is difficult, but we should redouble our efforts to create a society where no-one has to be without a home to call their own.