Behind every homelessness statistic sits a story – or, more accurately – 88410* stories. Stories of people fleeing violence or abusive relationships. Stories of people struggling with ill-health and addictions. Stories of care leavers being left to struggle thorough. And, increasingly, stories of people who just can’t afford the rent.** Some – the “lucky” or “deserving” few, find their way into temporary accommodation.*** Some sleep rough.**** Some turn to prostitution as a way of getting a roof for the night. It is a desperate situation.
Readers of this blog know this. We see it every day on our way to work or as part or our work. We fight with landlords to stop them evicting people (whether by acting for tenants or where local authorities try to persuade landlords to hold off on proceedings so as to keep someone in their home). We work to improve housing conditions. We come into housing because we believe that there is nothing more important than having somewhere to live. And it makes us angry – furious, even – that our society allows these problems to continue.
And it’s against that background that the recent National Audit Office report on Homelessness should be read. It’s only 52 pages but is a damning analysis of the DCLG and government as a whole. The overwhelming impression is that the government just doesn’t care about the homeless or about the effects of its policies. It just doesn’t care if people are pushed into poverty. The poor and homeless (as well as landlords receiving UC/HB payments) are just there to be the subject of experimentation. I shouldn’t feel this strongly about a NAO report, but, frankly, it makes me wonder how the DCLG staff can face themselves in the morning.
Let me explain.
The government is – at least misleading if not outright dishonest – about the scale of the problem. As the report notes (para.1.6). The DCLGs “measures of homelessness do not capture its full extent”. It simply ignores those who are only kept off the street owing to the charity of friends of family. The UK Statistics Authority has, since December 2015, been telling the DCLG that this is not good enough but as recently as February 2017, the DCLG was issuing press releases which perpetrated this misleading (if not dishonest) distinction. Still, when the Foreign Secretary can get away with it, why should I expect any more of the DCLG?
One of the major forces driving the increase in homelessness is the huge spike in the number of people needing help once their ASTs have ended (para.1.15 et seq). The NAO asked local authorities about this and in “all cases” (emphasis added), were told that “this was due to increases in rents in the private sector, and a decline in people’s ability to pay these rents. This decline in ability to pay was said to be partly due to welfare reforms” (para.1.16). But, of course, those reforms are the direct consequences of government policy! When you combine these cuts to welfare benefits – the benefit cap and the HB restrictions (1% uplift, capping at the average for the 30th percentile) with the fact that rents have increased three times faster than income (England, non-London; 8 times in London) and that 1 in 4 private renters rely on benefits in whole or part to pay the rent, then what did the DCLG think was going to happen? What makes me really angry though is that the DCLG has done no work – no analysis at all – of these issues. How on earth does it expect to be able to push back against DWP and the Treasury when it has no evidence base to support its arguments? The DWP has done some analysis but it doesn’t cover the most recent changes and, in any event, the NAO found it failed to recognise the scale of the problems (paras.1.22 and 1.23).
Now, DCLG employees reading this (and we know there are some) will say that this isn’t their fault. They can’t stop wider government policy. But there are two answers to that. First, I don’t care. This isn’t about you and whether I’m being fair to you. It’s about the 120,540 children who are sleeping in t/a. Being fair to civil servants really doesn’t come into it. Secondly, as the NAO notes, the DCLG doesn’t actually have any published policy for tacking homelessness or for working out what any of the money it spends should be directed to achieving. It doesn’t even examine the individual policies of local authorities (para.3.4 et seq).
And before you get ahead of yourself, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 won’t help this either. There is some money allocated for the first two years of the new Act, but the assumptions underlying the allocation and distribution are, to put it politely, unclear and untested (para.3.17). And the suggestion from the government that ater 2 years there will be no need for further funding because the 2017 Act will save money is just a bad joke. The HRA 2017 is a good thing, but it is a very, very expensive thing.
So where does that leave us? Spending £1.15bn a year to achieve very little.
Sometimes I despise my government. This is one of those days.
*the number of households that applied for homelessness assistance in England in 2016-17; so the number of people affected will comfortably be double that.
** The number of people homeless upon the ending of an AST has risen three fold since 2011
*** 77,240 households are in t/a in England as at March 2017, which is significantly more than an average Parliamentary constituency
**** 4134. An increase of 134% since 2010.