New strategy for tackling homelessness

Crisis in availability of low rent housing

The number of people on low incomes who should be entitled to ‘social housing ‘ – houses and flats that are owned by local government or by other organizations that do not make a profit – far outweighs the availability of such housing, according to new research by housing charity Shelter, published this morning. While that in itself comes as no great surprise, the extent of the shortfall is quite shocking. They say more than nine in ten private renters (91%) who need a social home are unable to get one and are left on waiting lists, often for years on end. In London your chances of getting social housing fall to just 2%.

The problem stems from decades of failure to build new social homes. Just 6,434 social rent homes were delivered last year. ‘Consequently, people have become effectively trapped in expensive private renting’ they say. A YouGov study for Shelter shows that 21% of private renters are constantly struggling or falling behind with their rent. 24% cut back on food. 18% cut back on heating to try and cope with the payments.

New strategy for tackling homelessness

I was invited to see what Hounslow is doing to tackle homelessness in the borough in response to new legislation brought in last year, which gives councils responsibility for preventing homelessness, and I have to say some of the results are pretty impressive. They want people to tell them when they’re struggling and at risk of becoming homeless, rather than waiting till they actually are. Slogan: Help us to help you to stay in your home. Contact 0208 583 2888. #stopitbeforeitstarts

It’s not rocket science, but for local government it’s a considerable breakthrough. Firstly it recognises that homelessness is caused by a range of diverse and complex factors (domestic violence, mental and physical health problems, losing your job, marriage breakdown … quite aside from low wages and expensive accommodation). Secondly it requires housing staff to work with other agencies, to help clients with everything from getting a birth certificate to applying for benefit and getting a job, in order to keep them in their home. They no longer say ‘I’m a housing officer, I just do housing. I can’t help you with that’. Or at least, that’s the theory.

Peter Matthew, Executive Director of Housing, Planning and Communities, told the audience: “Homelessness is caused by a set of really complex human factors. The key to dealing with this effectively is having the people on staff who are capable of managing really complex issues”. The housing department had put together a film highlighting case studies. One was Kirsi from Finland.

Case study

Kirsi, a woman in her late 60s from Finland, was sleeping rough. Housing officers circulated CCTV footage to the police to try and identify her (she was dossing outside Hounslow House). They spotted her and referred her to the Housing department. She was paranoid; didn’t want anything to do with officialdom. The team called an ambulance, got her medical assistance and a mental health assessment. They found out she was connected with Finland, contacted the Finnish embassy, who found that she was a missing vulnerable person. They worked with the embassy and St Mungos, who gave her temporary accommodation till the embassy could organize her a new passport and paid for a ticket for her to return to Finland.

‘That’s the type of service we’re dealing with’ said Peter Matthew. ‘Is not just about housing. They’re dealing with a set of complex social factors’.

Results

Over the past five years, the council has successfully reduced the number of households living in temporary accommodation. In 2014, there were over 1,140 households living in temporary accommodation, which was reduced by 40 per cent to 675 households at the end of March 2019. This despite the fact that the new legislation has brought forward a deluge of people who are at risk and are now getting in touch with them looking for help.

“It has led to a doubling of the number of people asking for help” said Peter Matthew. “In a way, that is positive, because people who are struggling are coming forward”. Instead of turning up in the council’s offices with suitcases, having been evicted, they are seeing people earlier, and the intervention of housing officers has meant less use of B&Bs, fewer families in temporary accommodation, and fewer rough sleepers.

Building more social housing

Steve Curran, leader of Hounslow Council, said: “Since 2011 all councils have had an almost impossible task but Hounslow is in the top ten in the country and second highest in London at building council houses”. The council has made a pledge to secure an additional 5,000 new and affordable homes by 2022. Of which 3,000 new Council and Housing Association homes for social rent and 2,000 for shared ownership and other affordable housing.

The importance of integrated working and partnerships

Steve leads on housing development. Deputy Leader Cllr Lily Bath leads on housing services. She welcomed the Homelessness Reduction Act, because is focuses on reduction, but said she was also disheartened that “the Government has not addressed the root causes of homelessness”.

She gave other examples of the benefit of an integrated service: the councils outreach team dealt with a rough sleeper who had no money and no papers, whose health was deteriorating. They put him in a B&B, got him a new birth certificate, went with him to open a bank account and assisted him with applying for benefits and getting a job. The case showed the importance of integrated working and partnerships, she said. “It’s all about partnership – let’s all work together to encourage a culture which enables us to stop homelessness before it starts”.

The councillors paid tribute to their housing officers, and in particular Renata Gruda and the Head of Homelessness, Independence Preventative Services, Amanda Lowes.

Case studies from Chiswick Riverside ward

Sam Hearn, Conservative councillor for Chiswick Riverside, is not usually shy about criticising the council, but he was full of praise for the way in which they are now dealing with homeless people. He gave me several examples from his own ward.

Case 1 – a single woman

A woman – typical of those highlighted by Shelter today – who works, but whose salary doesn’t cover the rent for her one bedroom flat, even though it’s a housing association property. They were going to evict her. Sam has been working with them to try and avoid that. She got in to debt because she was studying and was forced to leave a previous flat when the relationship she was in became abusive. It’s more expensive to live as a single person than as one of a couple, and even though she works four days a week, she got into arrears. “She is continually on the edge” says Sam. The council has cleared her rent arrears, to help her get back on track with a fresh start. “It’s cheaper for them to pay the arrears off than have her as a homeless person” says Sam.

Case 2 – a single man

A man in his 30s – also typical of the kind of case highlighted by Shelter today – had been living with his mother. He moved into a smaller place, a council home, but got behind with the rent. Enforcement officers came and threw out his belongings and shut up the property with a steel door and he lost everything. Trying to prove who he was, whether or not he’d had warnings, trying to unravel what exactly had gone wrong was hard, because he’d lost all his paperwork. “He’s vulnerable” says Sam.

He was sleeping in the back yard of a householder over the summer, who told Sam of the problem. He took him in for an appointment with housing officers who got him into temporary accommodation in the west of the borough. It means he walks from one end of the borough to the other to work, but he is pleased with his temporary accommodation.

Under the new strategy, he should not have been evicted, but helped and managed before.

Case 3 – Family of five

A family of five, two adults, three children (one in secondary school and two in primary school) were living in rented accommodation and relied on benefits to meet the rent. When one of them lost their job, they went into arrears. “The landlady wanted them out because she thought she could get a much higher rent” says Sam.

Since universal credit was introduced there has been a huge increase in the number of tenants going into arrears. The Residential Landlords Association, which represents landlords across the country, did its own research earlier this year which showed that the average amount owed by tenants in receipt of universal credit increased from £1,600 n 2017 to just under £2,400 in 2018. Maybe not surprisingly, a piece of research by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government found that around half of landlords said they would not be willing to let to tenants on housing benefits.

This case is typical of that particular conundrum. The family was moved to temporary accommodation in Feltham, so they now have long bus routes to take the children to school. The council is working to get them into permanent social accommodation. So far they’ve seen two properties but have been pipped at the post by other people also wanting them.

‘Help us to help you’

“The officers I’ve dealt with have all been very good” says Sam. “They are in it for the right reasons. They want to help people”. While you can walk in off the street to Hounslow House, to be met by a floor walker, and take a ticket and wait to see someone, it is better says Sam if you go through a councillor, who can help you through the process, book an appointment and generally make the experience go more smoothly.

The message they want us to take away is that homelessness can happen to anyone, and that if you’re struggling and at risk of becoming homeless, get in touch. Contact 0208 583 2888 or ask your local councillor for help. Councillors hold surgeries at Chiswick library every Saturday morning.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Volunteer Chiswick – Directory of Volunteering opportunities in Chiswick

See also: St Mungo’s