Last Word

01.03.17

Parliament cannot solve homelessness through legislation alone

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 17

Cllr Michelle Lowe, deputy leader and cabinet member for housing and health at Sevenoaks District Council, argues that if the government is really serious about combating homelessness they will work with councils as an enabler, and fully fund the work of local government as it tries to achieve the impossible.

Homelessness is a terrible problem that blights peoples’ lives in a way that is hard to imagine without experiencing it first-hand. It is an encouraging first step that the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee is taking it so seriously that it sponsored the Homelessness Reduction Bill. Unfortunately, an Act of Parliament on its own cannot eradicate homelessness. Only local government can do that – although councils will be more effective tackling it with Parliament’s help and support. 

The causes of homelessness are complex and as varied as the people who are homeless. The only way to combat it is to tackle the many root causes which include debt, mental health, armed forces adjusting to civilian life and domestic abuse. 

Tackling debt 

The causes of debt are again many and varied. They range from addiction and worklessness, to not knowing how to manage money. Councils and housing associations work hard to find people living with debt and to help them sort out their money issues. Many run courses on how to manage their income and secure training and employment, as well as referring people to various services to help with their addictions. 

People in debt are more secure if they live in council or housing association properties, but private landlords are not always so understanding. Councils often have to do more work with tenants who rent in the private rather than social sector. Benefit changes can simply compound the situation. The second benefit cap that was introduced in November is bound to have a massive impact on claimants, especially in areas where their local authority has not found out who they are to help them through the transition. Parliament could help eradicate homelessness by working more closely with local government on the major changes that affect peoples’ lives, such as benefit reductions. 

Fully funded support 

People living with mental health conditions may need extra support, which is why the provision of supported housing must go hand in hand with homelessness reduction. Depending on the severity of the condition, the extra support may be permanent or temporary, intense or fairly light. But it needs to be fully funded and it needs to be there. 

It would be a huge help to local authorities if they could be informed of military personnel before they are discharged, so that they can be supported fully into civilian life — whether that is help with finding suitable housing or making sure they have the full support packages in place before they leave the forces, and not after it is too late. 

It is always difficult to predict when a victim of domestic abuse is going to ask their local authority for help, particularly if they are unknown to the council or any of its partners. This is where housing, community safety, the NHS and schools have to work together to try and identify cases of abuse as early as possible so that steps can be taken as they are needed. There needs to be more refuge places and more resources to help rehome victims of domestic abuse — so they do not remain in refuges longer than they need to. 

Obviously, a big cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable homes. Parliament needs to enable local authorities to build the types of affordable properties they need in their area to meet their needs, and to stop trying to solve housing shortages with a one-size-fits-all national solution. There isn’t one! 

Measures such as removing the affordable housing contributions from small developments is further hampering the efforts of local government in its fight against homelessness by stripping them of even more funds that were focused on the most vulnerable. 

If Parliament and government departments are really serious about combating homelessness, they will work with local government as an enabler (and sometimes by getting out of the way), and fully fund the work of local government as it tries to achieve the impossible. There is no single solution to solving homelessness. Local government is closer to its residents and more able to know who they are and what their needs are so they can help them. 

It is encouraging that CLG Committee is sponsoring the Homelessness Reduction Bill and that the government has agreed to fund some of it. Let’s hope both central and local government will do what needs to be done and step up to the plate — so together we can really dent the number of homeless people we have living in our country.

There is no single solution to solving homelessness. Local government is closer to its residents and more able to know who they are and what their needs are so they can help them.

Comments

Deplume   13/03/2017 at 13:14

Interesting thoughts. However, on checking the Sevenoaks council website, there is advice plus a list of hostels it suggests the homeless should contact - but not one is in Sevenoaks!!! Does Sevenoaks not have any empty properties that can be converted into hostels?

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