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The nature of homelessness has changed – and our response must change too

Clive Betts
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Fifty years ago this November, the BBC broadcast a TV play that a 1988 Radio Times’ readers’ poll voted the best single TV drama ever shown.

It is often referred to as the most influential UK TV programme of all time. The play was Cathy Come Home; the subject, homelessness.

In the light of public reaction to the drama, the charity Crisis was launched the following year. Coincidentally, Shelter was formed just a few days after the original broadcast. Despite the huge public outcry, many commentators felt there was little change in the institutional response to homelessness despite legislative changes.

But in the 1960s that the nature of homelessness changed. As well as more families becoming homeless, there was a significant increase in the number of homeless teenagers arising from family breakdown and exacerbated by housing benefit changes. As the old, large county asylums changed, there were an increasing number of homeless people with mental health and drug and alcohol addictions and specialist accommodation and support has often been insufficient.

Homelessness began to increase again until the Labour government in 1998 established the Rough Sleepers Unit and later the Supporting People fund to work with councils and the third sector to massively decrease rough sleeping. Hidden homelessness has remained a problem that by its nature is difficult to quantify, with families living with relatives in overcrowded accommodation or single people surfing on friends’ sofas.

Unfortunately, since 2010, there has again been a considerable growth in homelessness. Any MP across the political spectrum today will tell you their concerns about the increasing scale of family homelessness and the hugely damaging impact on individuals (especially children), families and communities.

It is a classic example of how MPs’ constituency work provides a critical analysis of legislation, policies and performance, which supplements the information and analysis of other players like Crisis and Shelter.

Perhaps that explains why we are seeing a ground-breaking initiative in legislative change.

The communities and local government select committee’s report on homelessness showed it isn’t just the scale of the problem that is concerning, but also that so many people are badly treated by council staff. In some authorities, there is excellent work to support homeless people but, too often, those who are judged not to be in priority need are poorly served and sent away without any meaningful support.

One committee member, Bob Blackman (Con), is promoting a private members’ bill supported by MPs of all parties. The committee is also going to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of the bill. To the best of my knowledge, this will be the first time that a select committee has not only sponsored a bill, but also conducted the scrutiny process, following its own inquiry.

The bill has made progress because the government hasn’t opposed it (yet!), even though the government is clearly being pushed further than it wanted to go. We all look to pushing it a little further still.

The bill focuses on preventing people from becoming homeless by giving housing authorities the power to intervene earlier. It introduces new duties to ensure proper advisory services are offered to applicants. It looks to establish statutory guidance on homelessness.

Far too often, we heard stories that some councils are doing everything to avoid responsibility and defer appropriate action. In the evidence sessions we heard of a homeless applicant being told “she wasn’t pregnant enough for us to be required to act yet” despite the medical evidence to the contrary. In another case, of a family becoming homeless, the council initially refused to take account of the daughter being in the middle of her A-level exams and told the family that the only housing offer was one requiring a two-hour journey each way to and from school.

It is the scale of the challenge that means a renewed government strategy is essential. We need to build more social housing in many areas and the government also needs to examine the impact of its welfare reforms. We have made a number of recommendations to government and to councils. The committee has started taking evidence on the bill this week

Meanwhile, I’m asking the leader and chief executive of every housing authority in England to read our report and then to examine their own council’s performance. Some of our most vulnerable citizens deserve nothing less.

Clive Betts, (Lab), chair, communities and local government committee

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