Homelessness: prevention is better than cure

January 25, 2017   By Lucy Terry, Senior Researcher

Homelessness receives a lot of media and policy attention this time of year, as the effects of sleeping rough are all too apparent. As it gets colder, and floods and snow are frequent, councils will be working hard with key partners to provide emergency assistance to ensure homeless people survive the winter (under ‘severe weather protocols’). Sleeping rough is dangerous.

Yet solving the problem of homelessness must go beyond providing shelter in an emergency, towards a preventative approach that tackles the causes. Recent policy developments have begun to recognise this, and recently we learnt that the government will fund a further £48 million to councils to support them to reduce and prevent homelessness (admittedly a very small amount, as commentators have discussed).

People become homeless for a variety of complex reasons. To get their lives back on track, they need safe, stable homes. But it’s increasingly apparent that the most vulnerable people don’t currently get the support they need. Single people without children at risk of becoming homeless are not usually entitled to statutory support from their local authority – only basic advice and information. This group may end up sleeping rough, and face a range of barriers to getting off the streets.

But it’s not just single people who face barriers. Councils find it difficult to find suitable homes for families who are entitled to provision (see this Shelter report). Homeless families are sometimes placed in one room within a hostel, sharing facilities with other people; waiting for a real family home. They feel unsafe, and unable to live a normal family life, often reporting a lack of privacy, comfort and even basic hygiene.

However, if the Homelessness Reduction Bill were enacted successfully, local authorities would potentially intervene earlier and prevent people from losing their home in the first place. People who are threatened with homelessness would be eligible for help for 56 days. This would apply to all people at risk of homelessness, regardless of whether they qualify for statutory assistance.

Councils have faced shrinking budgets – making it harder and harder to address these issues. This Bill can’t be seen in isolation from the scale of the cuts councils have faced, and the effects on things like housing support funding disappearing. But the focus on prevention activity is welcome. Focusing on prevention will stop people going into unsuitable temporary accommodation or sleeping rough (the end of a private tenancy is now the leading trigger of homelessness in England).

It’s now a good time to think about what effective preventative work might look like, and how councils can deliver it. Local authorities could potentially facilitate mediation with landlords, assistance with rent arrears and debt management support. Whatever form it takes, a focus on prevention could empower local authorities to really address the root causes of this problem, rather than feeling like gatekeepers of scarce resources as they are now.

Nonetheless, it is crucial that funding is adequate to provide this sort of support, especially because good preventative work represents value for money in the long-term. And other public sector partners must collaborate with councils on this issue; all play a key role in stopping some of the wider causes of homelessness, such as reoffending, poor mental health and drug and alcohol issues. Taking a preventative approach to homelessness has the potential to save the taxpayer money, and, more importantly, improve lives for the most vulnerable in society.

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