Communities secretary Eric Pickles and housing minister Grant Shapps acted swiftly this week to deny claims in a leaked departmental memo that the government’s benefit reforms risk making 40,000 families homeless.
Closer examination, however, shows Mr Shapps has done so through conflating and confusing two separate ways of understanding homelessness as a means of obfuscation.
Homelessness has been a genuine concern of the housing minister since picking up his shadow brief.
Following the announcement of the benefit cap policy – which limits the amount of benefits paid to an out-of-work household to the median family income, currently around £26,000 a year – he said:
“People like me – who set up a homelessness foundation, worked with all the homeless charities, authored probably six of seven homelessness papers – don’t make changes without thinking through the impact of them on the homeless.
“It is ludicrous to suggest that we would ever do things that would end with people living on our streets.”
Mr Shapps dismissed Sunday’s memo for the same reasons.
When the memo was written, he told The Guardian, the government was unsure it would be able to meet its house building targets. They are now sure they will. Families will not be made homeless, he argued, as there will be enough homes.
He went on to confidently tell the BBC:
“I see no reason for this to lead to homelessness… This won’t lead to more people on the streets.”
But being “on the streets” is only one reality of homelessness.
Indeed, the 40,000 figure mentioned in the Department for Communities and Local Government memo referred to the number of families accepted as homeless by their local councils. These families, made homeless when they are forced out of their homes when benefit changes make them unaffordable, will not end up on the streets, since the council has a duty to find them alternative housing.
In arguing that enough homes will lead to an end to homelessness, Mr Shapps’s comments appear to simply conflate homelessness with rough sleeping, relying on the confusion of what is often misunderstood and downplaying the real crises faced by these vulnerable families.
If warnings from organisations such as London Councils are realised, this could include children being uprooted from schools, and families being housed far away from their communities, support and prospective jobs, making recovering from a difficult situation even harder.
Mr Shapps announced a funding boost for the homelessness sector on Thursday of £20 million to support the roll out of an innovative project that aims to engage people found sleeping on the streets to ensure they are able to be moved into appropriate accommodation. But while this announcement is welcome, it is unlikely to deliver additional support to the families made homeless by the benefit cap.
More significantly for them was a report issued on the very same day by the Local Government Ombudsman warning of the likely impact of funding cuts on the crucial engagement support homeless families rely on. The report warned overstretched councils are failing to deal properly with homelessness applications, delaying decisions or refusing to provide suitable accommodation to those in need.
Mr Shapps is perhaps correct in asserting the memo does not claim benefit changes will lead to more people on the streets. This does not, however, make the problem of homeless families any less critical.
Without a full and frank discussion around the risks of families being made homeless, and effective funding of essential services to help them access the housing support they are owed and need, this may well become a reality.