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Supply, cost and cuts: The varied state of homelessness

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While homelessness varies across the country, better co-ordination, integration and more preventative mindsets offer hope. Jimmy Nicholls reports


  • Margaret Carney, chief executive, Sefton MBC
  • Jim Crawshaw, head of homeless services, Birmingham City Council
  • Mike Dawson, chief executive, Tewkesbury BC
  • Tom Finch, assistant manager, Mears Group
  • Nick Golding (chair), LGC
  • David Hagg, outgoing chief executive, Stroud DC
  • Suzanne Hemingway, strategic director, Cambridge City Council
  • Carl Mullooly, service manager, accommodation and support, Sheffield City Council
  • Ciaran O’Shea, business development director, Mears Group
  • Ian Thomas, chief executive, Lewisham LBC
  • Will Tuckley, chief executive, Tower Hamlets LBC

The drive to tackle homelessness has intensified in recent years as the scale of the problem has worsened.

A national lack of housing has been acknowledged by Theresa May as being among the domestic priorities of her government. But homelessness draws in many local services, including health, social care and the police.

These issues, coupled with evidence that rough sleeping is on the rise, provided the spur for an LGC roundtable supported by Mears Group at last month’s LGC Summit in Manchester.

Opening the debate, LGC editor Nick Golding said: “A decade ago it almost seemed that we were in a lot better place than we are now. Huge strides seemed to have been made to tackle homelessness.

“Now it seems to be a very visible problem. In truth there was always quite a major problem, but possibly not so visible as it is now.”

The initial discussion concerned the varied problems facing different councils with regard to homelessness. Mike Dawson, chief executive of Tewkesbury BC, said: “Our issues are probably in terms of numbers a lot less than most other authorities round the table.

“Homelessness historically has not been a huge problem – being a fairly rural borough – but with the recent changes in homeless legislation and also some other benefit changes we’re finding increased difficulty in dealing with homeless cases and also in terms of the rise in numbers.”

Mr Dawson added that in 2017 his council had seen 100 homeless presentations, but this had risen to 151 in the first quarter of 2018 alone. “We have a small team that works very well with its partners,” he said. “But for us that’s quite an increase.”

The Tewkesbury chief’s experience contrasted with that of Will Tuckley, chief executive of Tower Hamlets LBC. He said the main issues with homelessness his council faces have “always been housing supply and a very needy population in terms of deprivation”.

“We’ve got over 2,000 homeless households in temporary accommodation,” he said. “And that creeps inexorably up: 20,000 on the waiting list, 7,000 overcrowded households.”

Since he had visited a homeless unit in Tower Hamlets 25 years ago there has been “a huge change in the housing market, in particular the huge growth of the private rented sector”.

Contributing to homelessness is “uncertainty in the private rented sector, coupled with welfare and benefit reform, and particularly the benefit cap”.

“We have people on very low incomes with very high housing costs,” Mr Tuckley said. “The population of Tower Hamlets has lost millions of pounds as a result of that reduction in benefit payments.”

Cambridge has similarly a massive problem around supply, but particularly around affordability

Suzanne Hemingway, Cambridge City Council

Suzanne Hemingway, strategic director at Cambridge City Council, said: “Cambridge has similarly a massive problem around supply, but particularly around affordability.

“We’re a very fast-growing city with rapid expansion around the edges, but the broad housing market rental area means no properties within the city are affordable for people on benefits, unless they are social rented properties or properties below the local housing allowance rate, which is about 65% of private rental, and lower in some areas.”

She added that most homeless families her council works with include someone with a job. For high-tech sectors based in her city, the high cost of living could pose a problem. “Those companies will not come to Cambridge if they cannot recruit cleaners, baristas and secretaries, as well as the high-tech people they’re paying very large salaries to,” she said.

Sheffield’s problems are similarly nuanced. “We’ve got 40,000-plus council housing properties,” said Carl Mullooly, service manager for accommodation and support at Sheffield City Council. “Affordability is not as much of an issue for us, it’s more having the number of properties to meet the demand.”

Changes to benefits and other legislation are causing the council issues. “We are seeing an increase in the number of people in temporary accommodation as well, particularly since the Homeless Reduction Act came in, where people seem to be in temporary accommodation for longer,” Mr Mullooly said.

“We haven’t rolled out a full universal credit yet but that’s coming in November and December in Sheffield. We’re one of the last authorities to roll it out, but we’re bracing ourselves for the impact that’s going to have on homelessness.”

Summarising some of the dynamics, Ciaran O’Shea, business development director at Mears Group, said: “I think what you are seeing areas experiencing homelessness for the first time or seeing a change in the core coming through the door and the reasons for homelessness.

“We’re seeing an increase in those with higher support needs and care needs that’s not being identified at the right juncture, which is an impact from the social care budget cuts. It’s not just an urban-centric problem any more, it’s very much impacting most local authorities.”

Margaret Carney, chief executive of Sefton MBC, said growth in rough sleepers in her borough had raised the issue of homelessness, but this had muddled public understanding of the overall problem.

“The community up in Southport is a relatively affluent community, concerned because they see rough sleepers and associate that with homelessness, as opposed to the bits that are unseen which are single people and families who present themselves for housing.

“It gets increased in terms of that public reaction, and suddenly we have a massive homeless problem, but we’re talking about two or three people who we know very well. So there’s a definition of homelessness that’s worthy of conversation.”

Ms Carney added that the Liverpool City Region CA, of which Sefton is a member, “has taken a really close interest in different models of homelessness and has received some significant government investment to pilot some models”.

Ian Thomas, chief executive at Lewisham LBC, said deprivation and “a dearth of land” are the problems facing his borough which contribute to homelessness. He added that there was “a political mandate about how we do business with the private sector, and private developers”, which was presenting “interesting challenges”.

The other problem is affordability. “We’re talking in terms of genuine affordability, not market rents,” he said. “It’s London – don’t be crazy!”

We have a significant number of large families in temporary accommodation and approaching us daily: up to a nine-bedroom need.

Jim Crawshaw, Birmingham City Council

Jim Crawshaw, head of homeless services at Birmingham City Council, reported a different problem: “We have a significant number of large families in temporary accommodation and approaching us daily: up to a nine-bedroom need.

“It’s not impossible, but it is extremely difficult to try to get that size of accommodation to meet those needs. Those families will stay in temporary accommodation for a number of years before we can secure them something, and even finding them temporary accommodation of that size is a massive issue.”

On this point, Mr O’Shea said it was important to identify short-term accommodation as such. “It’s being able to make sure there’s a move on to either a medium-term stay, temporary accommodation or somewhere you can properly discharge a housing duty in such a way that you can be confident they can sustain a tenancy.”

Despite some regional variation, Tom Finch, assistant manager at Mears Group, reported that councils across the are country experiencing much the same problems.

“I think root causes are perhaps where we see the variations between different areas,” he said. “What’s driving homelessness in areas such as Stroud, Tewkesbury and more rural areas as opposed to the urban centres?”

David Hagg, chief executive of Stroud DC, said the problem of homelessness was particularly acute for young people in his area.

“Effectively if you’re a young person you’re going to struggle,” he said. “You’re probably likely to move to Cheltenham or Gloucester, and that creates a whole bundle of issues. Those of us who don’t have that opportunity or can’t afford to are effectively sofa surfing, doing a number of different things, occasionally managing to get a group of people together [to rent a property].”

Ms Hemingway agreed that geography plays a part. “I think there is a geographical pattern, because housing markets do vary across the country,” she said.

“There are parts of the country where the gap between the market rent and affordable rent and social rent isn’t huge, so more of the people who are experiencing homelessness are going to be from complex, troubled families, and have those other factors that are dictating homelessness.”

Mr Thomas was more sceptical about the geographical connection. “You get complex families anywhere,” he said. “I think there’s an element linked to geography, but it’s about complex families and complex people that find themselves in difficult situations for a myriad of different reasons.”

“I think that’s right,” said Mr Tuckley. “The statistics from government tend to bear that out but have shown a change over time.

“The ones that point to relationship breakdown have tended to be more significant in the past. In recent times we’ve seen figures which in essence show people being evicted from the private sector becoming a more significant factor.”

This was backed up by Mr Dawson. “We are finding the private rented sector is getting less tolerant of what it might regard as troublesome tenants,” he said. “Then we’re finding it more difficult to place people into the private rented sector.

“The other bit is around the cost of the private rented sector outstripping benefits by a long way. Part of our work at the moment is to try to recover some of the ground with that sector and build confidence and contacts for a little bit of provision to meet some of the demand. But it’s not easy.”

Our participants widely backed the use of more preventative policies to combat homelessness. Ms Carney said welfare changes had detracted from the support some homeless people would have previously received. “What happens now is they get to a crisis point and that impacts on their lives,” she said.

“We know early intervention and prevention is the answer, being able to shift the investment away from the acute. When your resources are constrained you know it’s going to cost you more in the long run. You know it’s going to be worse for those people in the long run.”

Mr Crawshaw expressed interest in using predictors of homelessness to reveal who is at risk. “It’s about how you identify those groups and somehow get to them earlier,” he said. “How can we try to ensure we’re providing that support as early as possible, bearing in mind the difficulties we’re facing in terms of funding? That isn’t something that’s easily done.”

“I think there’s root causes that go way back in people’s lives,” said Ms Hemingway.

“We talk about prevention, but the prevention we’re talking about is often [dealing with the problems of] people who are already homeless. So we’re not talking about preventing homelessness, we’re talking about early intervention.”

There’s an impetus and an imperative to get together to think about how across a place you align yourselves to intervene earlier.

Ian Thomas, Lewisham LBC

Mr Dawson said to some degree the system for dealing with homelessness was worsening people’s problems.

A business practice review he had conducted had flagged how complicated the system was, including for those it is supposed to serve. “Heaven knows how chaotic their lifestyles are but we’re really good at making it worse,” he said.

Better integration somewhat lessened the problem. “We did quite a bit of work to try to bring every single agency that was involved in that system. It was horrible as a piece of work, but we did actually achieve some significant improvements in the system performance,” Mr Dawson said.

“There’s a huge social and fiscal benefit if we do get together,” Mr Thomas agreed.

“There’s an impetus and an imperative to get together to think about how across a place you align yourselves to intervene earlier. And we’re starting to have those conversations in Lewisham.”

Mr Tuckley said integration was challenged by councils’ practice of placing homeless families outside their area.

“That’s a problem for the families, a problem for the organisation doing the placing, and a problem for the place you’ve placed the people in,” he said.

“The dislocation that causes is a huge challenge to us in the public sector as a whole, but it is inevitable. We’ve come up with a variety of solutions – I don’t think any of them are ideal.”

He also called for more co-operation between councils. “We’re often competing for the same temporary accommodation,” he said. “We’re often sending people to other authorities and they’re sending people to us.”

Although there are plenty of problems, Mr Hagg raised an optimistic note to end on.

“To me for many, many years across government there’s been a disconnect between all forms of public services and housing particularly has lost out.

“As I finish my career I’m more optimistic than I have been for the past 10 years that at least people are understanding the issues a bit better and are willing to try things – even if the finances are still very difficult.”

This roundtable discussion was sponsored by Mears Group. The topic was agreed by LGC and Mears Group. The report was commissioned and edited by LGC. See for more information.

Homelessness must be recognised as its own tenure

Gary Jackson, group director of communications and customer success, Mears Group

Homelessness is the neglected service of housing need.

The stigma of living in social housing or a community whichdoesn’t help people to thrive has long needed a rebuttal. But the August housing green paper does not provide solutions to incentivise providers to tackle the stigma of homelessness.

Mears has worked with our partners within local authorities to try to find innovative solutions to a growing crisis, as reflected in our conversations at the LGC Summit. We are the largest provider of emergency and temporary accommodation in the UK, specialising in innovative forms of housing supply, including purchase and repair, commercial-to-residential conversions and modular construction.

Our view is there will not be one solution to this issue – it will depend on need, area and resources. But solutions need to be bold.

It will involve looking at nontraditional forms of housing, while recognising homelessness as a housing tenure of its own, rather than conflating the different needs of those in temporary accommodation.

It’s also important to acknowledge that even if housing is available, homelessness by its nature is not always solved by immediate stability. Factors like health concerns, including mental health, addiction and history of abuse, mean different agencies must be involved.

These factors may inhibit someone from seeking shelter for the longer term. Solutions might include a safe place to sleep just for one night or a few days.

Another solution is to bring empty homes back into use. According to the Empty Homes Agency, there are more than 610,000 empty homes in England, 100,000 owned by local authorities.

Some of this stock is deemed too costly to repair, hard to let or stuck in stalled regeneration schemes. But housing providers can help turn problem assets into potential positives.

The housing sector also needs to be honest about what it is doing to tackle homelessness. Few providers want to specialise in temporary accommodation due to the perceived issues involved, and even fewer housing associations are incorporating temporary accommodation within social housing developments.

The green paper proposes a regulator for social housing and Mears supports this. A regulator with teeth would be able to criticise housing providers for not doing their bit.

But we would go further and call for powers to enable a regulator to incentivise those providers who either build temporary housing or provide funding for other solutions. It is time for the neglect to end.


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