by Tim Wakeman
22nd July 2021

The UK’s number of rough sleepers is unknown. The government’s estimates are considered inaccurate with many people in different stages of categorised homelessness. While 225,845 homes were considered long-term vacant, there are various barriers to resolving the homeless and housing crisis.

The number of homeless people is difficult to quantify. Although many are visible on the streets, others stay with friends and do not contact the state for various reasons. Crisis estimates that 62 per cent of single homeless people are not counted. These people are in addition to those in temporary accommodation such as hostels and bed and breakfasts who have registered a homeless need and are categorised as such by a local authority.

The following figures show the unreliability of official published statistics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, government statistics from February 2021 claimed the ‘Everyone in’ scheme had enabled 33,000 rough sleepers to move into accommodation. However, a snapshot count in autumn 2020 had claimed there were only 2,688 people sleeping rough, a 37 per cent reduction on the previous year. Figures obtained by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network in January 2021 found 3,307 people were sleeping rough in London between October and December 2020.

Government figures released in August 2020 based on categorising homeless people during the pandemic considered 38,450 households as threatened with homelessness, 36,690 as homeless and eligible for information and advice from a local authority, and 10,260 as unintentionally homeless with a priority need. Another 36,200 were threatened with homelessness in around six months. Prioritising people for housing based on need is important but surely in one of the richest countries in the world, there is no need for people to be homeless at all.

The idea that no single person or family should be homeless is further backed up by the availability of housing. In October 2020, the government released figures stating that 648,114 homes were empty in England. Of these, 225,845 were considered long-term vacant, for a period of at least six months. As seems be common practice under the current Conservative government, money was made available to investigate bringing these properties back into use but no information on the outcome of this survey was made widely available to the public.

Surely it only takes some proactive work in local authority areas by recognised homeless organisations such as St Mungo’s to help remove restrictions and barriers and to match people in need with empty houses.

Each local authority area should have a dedicated team to locate long-term empty properties. Once identified, the local authority should take possession, paying compensation at market level and making the home habitable. Priority for each should go to the homeless followed by those in temporary accommodation. Specialist teams should work with those who have suffered homelessness on an intensive basis to overcome the obstacles that have led the person to his or her situation. Support should cover issues such as budgeting, benefit access, healthy lifestyle, drug and alcohol misuse and mental health, and engagement ensured until a mutually agreed end-point.

To enable such a scheme to work, flexibility would be needed to prevent legal barriers to people’s access to, for example, financial assistance. Changes would be needed in benefit restrictions, such as the amount of rent that can be claimed, as well as the five-week wait for Universal Credit and no recourse to public funds.

Many homeless people are not accepted by a local authority as they do not have a connection to the area, often because they have fled from a different region. Allocation of housing, however, must take into account any personal preference for location. Give people a choice to stay in the current area, to return to the area they came from or to start a new life somewhere else. Regular contact with a support worker should be offered until both parties are happy that it is no longer needed.

In this way, social housing can be considered more than merely a safety net as it often is today. Bringing long-term empty homes back into use will start to free up housing lists as well as rebuild communities and eliminate the failed solution of using private rental properties as a remedy for a lack of social housing.

The failure by government ‘to support everyone’ during the pandemic could be reversed without the need for a lengthy investigation, and such a programme could start immediately. Local authority teams could be set up in each district to bring homes back into use, creating much-needed work from the fallout of the pandemic. Young, currently unemployed people could be taken on as apprentices for each skilled tradesman. At the same time, specialist teams established from the voluntary homelessness sector could work with local authority housing teams to match rough sleepers with property and support. As the process gets going, the income generated from rents could provide new funding for the rebuilding of social housing to increase housing stock.

In Scotland, such a scheme turned 143 homes into rent-generating properties for families in the space of 12 months in 2020. By investing £11 million in purchasing and carrying out repairs, backed up by £4.2 million from the Scottish government, one Council was able to purchase privately owned housing stock, some of which had been earmarked for demolition. Government funding such as £16 million to address substance misuse and £6 million to frontline homeless services announced in May 2020 could be used to kickstart such a programme.

After years of changing governments, housing policy is fractured, with the result that housing is unobtainable for many. A cross-party housing review, led by academics, housing professionals and charities without political interference, could produce a national housing strategy to be set down in statute so that it can benefit not only individuals but society as a whole.

Tim Wakeman has worked in housing and studied Social & Political Studies at Ruskin College. He is engaged with Housing Activists such as Focus E15 and more recently Acorn and writes articles and short essays on housing, activism and current politics.


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