For years, Crisis and others have been raising serious concerns about the impact of welfare reforms on homelessness, especially while councils are struggling with diminishing resources and growing service demand.
Yet homelessness statistics present a challenge: despite steady reports of worsening conditions on the ground, in the past two years, headline figures have levelled off.
We suspected something was missing and earlier this month published research alongside the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showing exactly what that is.
Drawing on a survey of English councils combined with statistical analysis and interviews, the Homelessness Monitor 2015reveals how the official homelessness figures are masking the true scale of the problem.
Of the 141 councils that responded to our survey, nearly two-thirds said the statutory homelessness figures no longer reflected trends in their areas.
Why? Councils are changing the way they deal with homelessness. Many are relying less on formal statutory approaches and increasingly on informal housing option routes that are recorded separately, such as financial assistance and debt advice, help to find or stay in a tenancy and family mediation.
The bottom line is that we can no longer rely on the statutory homelessness figures to show national trends.
Instead, our report sets out how the number of people facing or at serious risk of homelessness has risen sharply in recent years – a trend that has gone largely unnoticed by the government and the media.
One immediate implication is the need for better information so we can accurately track what’s happening on the ground.
The report also provides a clear picture of why homelessness has risen so sharply. Welfare cuts have left growing numbers of people struggling to keep a roof over their heads, with more than half of councils fearing worse is yet to come.
Officials provided stark accounts of people facing severe hardship because of sanctions; being unable to find a home on housing benefit; or being forced to leave their local area.
Many also raised major concerns about the future impact of the bedroom tax, particularly when combined with cuts to discretionary housing payments. Taken together, these policies are likely to mean a rise in the number of people facing eviction.
It’s clear that political choices have a huge impact on homelessness. Combined with a housing crisis that successive governments have failed to tackle, welfare cuts and sanctions have taken a dreadful toll on people’s lives and continue to do so.
As we approach the general election, we want to see all main parties taking homelessness seriously as an issue. The problem is much worse than we thought. We need a firm commitment to tackle it.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive, Crisis