Our housing system treats homelessness as a lifestyle choice

The rise in the number of 'intentionally homeless' passes the buck for a housing crisis driven by policy failure, writes an anonymous housing worker.

A damning new report shows the number of households living in temporary accommodation in England has increased by 60 per cent — to 77,240 — since 2011. Here, a housing worker shows how the rise in ‘intentionally homeless’ passes the buck for a housing crisis driven by policy failure. 

When a local authority decides someone left their accommodation due to something they did or failed to do they are issued with an Intentionally Homeless decision. That means the council in question only has a duty to house them for 28 days – after that they are on their own.

Issuing such a decision puts individual action at the root cause of homelessness, absolving societies responsibility towards the person in question. It acts like a shield, protecting structural forces such as a hugely expensive rental market or the benefit cap, allowing them to continue to prey on the most vulnerable.

Since 1996 the percentage of homeless applications resulting in this outcome has risen from 2% to 9%. While this may not seem meteoric, the result is that just under 5,000 more people a year are left out in the cold in this fashion, despite councils dealing with nearly half the number of homeless applications.

If you take the idea of being Intentionally Homeless at semantic value then maybe the increasing visibility of street homelessness is to blame for these statistics. Maybe the obvious freedom and economic opportunities on offer have made al-fresco living the newest lifestyle fad, with people deliberately building up rent arrears in the hope their landlord will set them free.

Yet since 1996, house prices in London for example have risen 518%, compared to a 47% increase in wages. This has led to the advent of ‘generation rent’.

And with rent costing on average 52% of earnings (60% in London) it is no wonder eviction from assured shorthold tenancies has become the number one cause of new homelessness cases in the UK.

It is at this point that I must divulge that I work for a local council, assessing the needs and eligibility of homeless applicants. From my vantage point on the front-line it is clear to me that what is driving the increase in intentionally homeless decisions isn’t the rise in fashion of al-fresco living – but sheer desperation.

Intentionality law stipulates that someone cannot be issued an intentionally homeless decision if a change in their circumstances such as loss of work or benefits has led to their homelessness.

But I am seeing more and more people enter into wholly unaffordable rents from the outset – simply because they feel they have no option but to do so. The benefit cap has meant that in London where I work there is almost always a short-fall to be made up on rent meaning even fewer properties are sustainable for people on low wages or work related benefits, with the chaotic rolling out of Universal Credit only promising to exacerbate this.

I spoke to a woman recently who was living in a studio flat where the monthly rental price was £200 above her monthly wage. She stated that a combination of very poor housing conditions, such as no central heating or hot water, and verbal abuse from housemates had led her to leave her house-share as she needed her own safe space, with the property in question being the cheapest of its type she could find in the area.

Her options were limited – very few landlords accept tenants who claim housing benefit. Additionally, the fact that she is in work means she is affected by the benefit cap. So there is a massive shortfall between the amount she receives and her rent, a shortfall her low-paid job with its sporadic hours cannot make up.

Yet as she entered this situation knowingly and had not stayed in her previous accommodation long enough for a properly-documented incident to take place, she would almost certainly be found intentionally homeless if evicted.

So while intentionality law does recognise some social risks such as job losses or domestic violence, it turns a blind eye to broader more difficult to confront issues – like Britain’s astronomic rental market or insecure low-paid employment.

The system treats homelessness as a lifestyle choice. In the midst of a housing crisis, it’s time to stop pointing the finger at the individual.

The writer works for a local authority in London.

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