ANY Londoner is painfully familiar with the number of rough sleepers. Some spots are focal points for make-shift “camps” of people; for example outside Warren Street station, there are often at least 25 homeless people. During the first year of the pandemic alone, 130,000 households were made homeless. With a cost of living crisis already starting to bite, thousands more are at risk.
Rough sleeping is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other homeless people sofa surfing, in temporary shelters or in friends and families’ living rooms. Others will even accept a stranger’s offer, beginning the dangerous path to exploitation. Then there are all households living on the brink of eviction.
The pandemic offered a glimpse of what public-private and cross-sector collaboration could achieve. Two flagship government policies – Everyone In and a ban on evictions – provided a temporary respite for those already on the streets, and a stopper in the tide of people who were at risk of losing their homes during lockdowns. But it was an intervention that was never designed to be permanent; commandeering private hotels for public use could only ever last so long. And, predictably, as soon as the policies ended, thousands of people were back on the streets.
As much as there is willingness to end homelessness – and afterall, what politician would oppose this as a policy goal – there is a sense it will require endless public money. But Hannah Keilloh, policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing rebuts this: “Preventing homelessness is a spend to save initiative”, she says.
But investing in early interventions pays off – funding erratically doesn’t. Before the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force in 2018, the policy had often been just to throw money at the problem. The current £310m Homelessness Prevention Grant is a coherent step that fits into the strategy of the Act: the money goes to councils to provide accommodation as well as prevent people from ending up on the streets. It is a more targeted use of funding, with a focus on avoiding inefficient solutions like housing people in bed and breakfasts for more than six weeks.
Exemption accommodation is another thorn in the side of homelessness prevention policy. When Birmingham council sent a team to inspect 431 exempt accommodations, it found 1,770 hazards; social housing conditions are often no better.
If the government wants to address the housing crisis, it needs the private sector to build, but the private sector needs Downing Street to knock heads together until more land is unlocked and planning laws relaxed. Increasing annual supply to 145,000 homes will require £34bn of additional capital funding each year, according to Legal & General Capital and the British Property Federation. Councils simply don’t have enough money to even scratch the surface. And housing associations can’t raise equity onto their own balance sheets in the scope of their not-for-profit structure.
Private providers have access to a growing sector of impact investment. But they need to be working closely with charities to deliver the support and standards required. “It’s a balance between attracting enough capital to deliver on scale, providing a solid level of return to investors while also providing an impactful contribution”, says Feilim McCole, CFO of HOPE, a company raising private money to deliver temporary accommodation.
For Westminster, committing to long-term funding is only the first step. It should establish serious partnerships with local councils, learning from the lessons of Everyone In. Underfunded councils put people in any kind of accommodation, because demand is way above what can be provided.
One woman, Beth, escaped domestic abuse only to be flung into a bed and breakfast shared with men, where she didn’t feel safe. Now she’s a resident of a female-only exempt accommodation service, hosted by Lotus Sanctuary. She says the place is “warm, clean and safe” – a standard that should be the lowest bar. But councils are unable to offer tailored solutions because they simply don’t have any.
Funding is allocated to councils based on local homelessness needs. This is sound policy, but it needs to be joined up with plans to build social housing tailored to specific needs. Do this, and people can start to rebuild their lives and find their own permanent accommodation. Otherwise, they end up in a spiral where they rely further and further on the government and councils for help.
The eagerness to prevent and relieve homelessness exists. But the seemingly unassailable scale of the problem can prevent real action.
During the pandemic, we delivered a taste of getting people off of the streets. Central government, local politicians and the private sector need to work to replicate this into a long term framework.