Will the Homelessness Reduction Bill reduce homelessness?
Bob Blackman MP’s Homelessness Reduction Bill– currently being scrutinised by a cross-party committee of MPs– presents a historic opportunity to bring about the most significant change in tackling homelessness in England in forty years. But what’s in the bill exactly and will it do what it says on the tin?
In a nutshell, the bill ensures all homeless people can access meaningful support to resolve their homelessness– including single homeless people, who get little if any support under the current system. Plus it introduces brand new measures to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place.
It does this by introducing a new duty on councils to take steps to prevent people’s homelessness, and where someone is already homeless or their homelessness cannot be prevented to take action to help secure accommodation. Those in ‘priority need’, including families with children and very vulnerable adults, would be supported under these duties but would still ultimately be owed the main duty of settled accommodation as per the current system.
We think these proposals could bring about a step change in who gets support to address homelessness or the threat of homelessness, and what that support looks like. The bill would correct a longstanding injustice meaning that single homeless people are too often turned away by their council when they find themselves in crisis. And it would also bring about a much needed shift towards intervening much earlier to prevent homelessness before people hit crisis point, including by involving other public services such as the health system and probation services.
But we recognise we’re not the ones who will be subject to the new duties contained in the bill. That’s why we’ve been meeting with local authorities over the summer to anticipate any potential challenges in implementing the new duties and how these might be addressed. And we’ll be holding a roundtable with councillors at Labour party conference to continue some of those conversations.
The good news is that councils are overwhelmingly positive about the shift towards a greater emphasis on homelessness prevention. But some councils are concerned about their ability to deliver the new duties, particularly given that many are already struggling with shrinking resources. We’ve always been clear that we think any new duties will require additional funding from central government, including transitional funding for implementation, if councils are to make a success of them.
Some councils anticipate the greatest financial burden to come from the duty to provide emergency accommodation for 56 days for homeless people who have nowhere safe to stay– with some making projections of having to accommodate large numbers of households. We believe these anxieties are based on a misunderstanding of the proposals.
The duty is intended to provide a safe place for stay for those who really have nowhere else to go– essentially those who are either already sleeping rough or are at genuine and imminent risk of sleeping rough. We’re working with local authorities to come up with an agreed definition of who would be eligible and how their eligibility could be determined, with a view to estimating demand and putting to rest some of these fears about opening the floodgates to a huge cohort of people requiring emergency accommodation.
Another broader concern outlined by some councils is that the bill simply won’t fix the problem of homelessness. Homelessness is increasingly on the rise in England as a result of, amongst other things, welfare reform and a chronic lack of affordable housing. Simply imposing new statutory duties on councils, so the argument goes, won’t solve the structural causes of homelessness.
To be clear, Crisis has been talking about these structural causes of homelessness for a long time. And we’re not suggesting that the bill offers a quick fix to tackle these. But we do think the bill would drive a wider reform agenda to truly prevent homelessness, and should be viewed within this broader context that includes the work of Crisis and others to shift the debate on housing supply and welfare reform. What the bill offers is a carefully crafted package of proposals that are deliverable in the current context, but which are intended to drive positive change to prevent homelessness for future generations.
Yes, we need to examine whether the welfare safety net is still capable of preventing people falling into homelessness. Yes, we need to address the severe shortage of homes affordable to those on the lowest incomes. But these issues can be addressed in parallel rather than waiting until these issues are fixed before addressing the very real flaws in our current homelessness legislation. To not seize this historic opportunity is to deprive single homeless people and those at risk of homelessness of a once in a lifetime opportunity to improve a system that has left them out in the cold for far too long.