In depth: Homelessness charities on what’s at stake in England’s elections

Since the Conservatives gained power in 2010, homelessness has become an ever-increasing problem

A homeless man

Last year, the government’s ‘Everyone In’ campaign saw over 37,000 rough sleepers put into emergency accommodation, and as a result a number of people have now been put into more long term accommodation.

Due to these measures, the number of ‘core’ homeless people in England dropped by 20,000, compared to 220,000 in 2019.

However, last month’s Public Account’s Committee report (PAC) into ‘Everyone In’ said that the number of people taken in off the streets was nearly nine times greater than the government’s last official estimate of people sleeping rough on England’s streets, made before the start of the pandemic.

It suggests that the official rough sleeping figures cover barely a fraction of those who need support.

PAC said the government “still does not have a plan for achieving or maintaining its 2019 election commitment to end rough sleeping by May 2024”.

Out in the cold

Since the Conservatives gained power in 2010, homelessness has become an ever-increasing problem.

Tough sanctions to the welfare system, social care cuts, a severe lack of social housing and, therefore, the reliance on private rentals have all contributed to the problem.

There are around 1.5 million fewer social homes today than in 1980 and over one million people are on the waiting list for one of these, while many more are struggling in poor quality and insecure housing.

Homeless Link is a national membership charity, which works directly with people who become homeless in England, as well as pushing for policy change. It has launched the Everyone in for Good campaign, to raise the profile of homelessness in the forthcoming local and mayoral elections in England, and hopes all local politicians will sign and commit to this pledge.

Rob Cartridge, Homeless Link campaigns and communications manager, told LFF homelessness “isn’t inevitable”. He said; “It’s something that, with the right effort and lots of people working together, we can bring to an end. We saw what could be done last year during the pandemic, but we need the results to last forever.”

Leading youth homelessness charity, Centrepoint, said that calls to its helpline increased by 33 percent during the pandemic, compared to the previous year and, while government support in terms of the furlough scheme and ‘Everyone In’ has kept a majority of people in work and off the streets, many vulnerable young people have slipped through the cracks.

The end of a private tenancy is one of the main drivers of homelessness, and a new survey commissioned by Generation Rent, ‘the national voice of private renters’, shows an estimated 700,000 private tenants (one in 12) have been issued with Section 21 ‘No Fault’ eviction notices since the pandemic begun.

In 2019, the government announced that it would scrap Section 21, as part of the Renter’s Reform Bill, following years of campaigning from ACORN, Generation Rent and others in the Renter’s Reform Coalition. However, two years later, this Bill still has not been brought forward by the government, who has cited Covid-19 as the reason.

The need for refuge

London is the biggest hotspot for homelessness, with more than 60,000 households in temporary accommodation.

“The Mayor of London has targets for house building and we would like him to ensure that the outcome of this is to put these households in long term homes. That means building 60,000 homes at genuinely affordable rent – this would start to address the homelessness emergency while also helping to free up properties and reduce rents in the wider market,” Dan Wilson Craw, deputy director of Generation Rent, told LFF.

The London housing crisis makes finding affordable housing extremely difficult for many people, but the situation is made even harder for those who are refugees. Once they have received a ‘positive’  decision on their asylum claim, refugees have just 28 days to find somewhere to stay before being evicted from their asylum accommodation. This is a big problem, resulting in a high rate of homelessness amongst newly recognised refugees.

Earlier this year, the Refugee Council compiled a report, setting out the difficulties refugees face in accessing private rented accommodation, looking at the outcomes for 160 refugees. It found that over the past two years, the majority of the refugees struggled to secure a tenancy, even with bespoke support. 98% were homeless in one form or another when they approached the Refugee Council’s Private Rented Scheme.

Seb Klier, Refugee Council’s Parliamentary Manager, said “Single refugees tend to get a lot less support than families when they seek help from local authorities, and are typically told they have to find somewhere in the private rented sector.

“If you are a new refugee, you have zero savings- You haven’t been allowed to work whilst waiting for your asylum claim and then you are told you have 28 days to find a private tenancy. It obviously doesn’t work out!

The Refugee Council has one key campaign this election: for the London mayor to provide a new City Hall fund, so that new refugees are able to provide a tenancy deposit. “It would prevent so much homelessness,” Klier said.

Local levers

In the face of government inaction, councils have extensive powers over enforcement of safety standards in private rented homes, and protection from illegal eviction and harassment. Generation Rent claim that these elections are a huge chance for renters to demand a better deal, and they are calling for councils to do more.

According to the campaign group, every electoral candidate has a role to play in housing, and preventing homelessness. About 1000 homelessness cases arise from illegal evictions every year, with landlords evicting tenants without court-appointed bailiffs.

Wilson Craw said: “Tenants should be protected under the Protection from Eviction Act, but councils don’t have the funding, powers or responsibility to enforce this, while police, who are often called to the scene first, are often unaware of the law, and take the landlord’s side.”

While renters need the government to beef up councils’ roles, the Police and Crime Commissioner elections could play a strong role on this issue too. Winning candidates could include measures to tackle illegal eviction in their Police and Crime plans, including better training, and improved recording of incidents, according to Generation Rent.

Paul Noblet, Centrepoint’s head of public affairs, pointed to metro mayors’ potential role in tackling the homelessness crisis: “In Manchester we’ve seen a strong coordinated response that built on the momentum of ‘Everyone In’ and continues to support rough sleepers. And despite facing budgetary constraints the Mayor of London has been able to make some additional money available for young people forced to sleep rough,” he said. 

But he added that regional and local governments can ‘only do so much’ without further, ongoing investment from Whitehall: “We need a long-term plan for investment that includes ring-fenced money for youth-specific accommodation and services.”

ACORN are a national community union, which has successfully fought campaigns against unfair evictions, while pushing for more affordable housing and council-run landlord licensing schemes in cities across the country. 

Alex Sumner, communications officer for ACORN, said the upcoming local elections present an opportunity for councils and local leaders to get to grips with the housing, noting: “Our local branches are now presenting demands to candidates, across England and Wales, on a range of issues to improve the lives of our members and our communities, including housing.”

Housing and homelessness are critical issues in next week’s elections. Your vote will influence what happens next.

Check out the candidates in the elections in your postcode area, by using Democracy Club’s checker here.

In response to this piece, the Liberal Democrats said they would introduce a “somewhere safe to stay” duty on local authorities to provide immediate emergency accommodation to anyone at risk of sleeping rough. They also support repealing the Vagrancy Act, so rough sleeping is no longer criminalised, as well as increasing housebuilding for social rent to 100,000 homes a year.

The Labour party told LFF the party would ‘transform’ our approach to housing, giving everyone the security that comes with a good quality, affordable home, by:

  • Empowering first time buyers to afford a home of their own.
  • Cracking down on bad landlords and make sure secure, good quality, affordable homes are the norm in the private rented sector, not the exception.
  • Building new ‘truly affordable’ homes and retrofit existing homes to make them warm, safe and dry. Tackling the climate crisis will be at the heart of all housing policies.
  • Ending rough sleeping and tackling the causes of homelessness

The Conservative party was contacted for this article but failed to comment.

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