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Government’s ‘light touch’ failed to address ‘shameful’ homelessness

The Department for Communities and Local Government’s attitude to reducing homelessness has been “unacceptably complacent,” the Public Accounts Committee has said.

In a report published this week, the committee has argued that the department has not shown enough urgency in addressing the growing crisis of homelessness across England.

At any one time there are 9,100 people sleeping on the streets, and over 78,000 households, including over 120,000 children, are housed in temporary accommodation, which can often be in very poor conditions.

Since 2010, the number of households in temporary accommodation has risen by more than 60%, and people sleeping rough have increased by over 134%. These figures do not include the “hidden homeless,” housed by family and friends.

The average rough sleeper dies before they reach the age of 50, and children in long-term temporary accommodation miss more schooling than their peers.

Yet, according to the committee, the department has only taken “limited action” to tackle the growing problem, and added that the “light touch” it has used to work with the local authorities to address the problem has “clearly failed.”

It argued that the department does not have a proper understanding of homeless people, having not modelled the costs and causes of homelessness recently, or measured the extent of “hidden homelessness.”

Whilst the committee agrees that the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 will “no doubt help,” it has criticised the department for placing too great a reliance on it, as it says it needs to be matched by a “renewed focus across government on tackling the twin issues of both the supply and affordability of decent housing, which underlie the causes of homelessness.”

Funding was announced in the Autumn Budget to allow local authorities to increase the supply of new homes, but the report says that the department plans to target this funding at local authorities that are ready to spend the money quickly, as opposed to those in areas with the most acute shortage of housing, which could mean that local authorities with housing need but not at the same position of readiness may miss out.

Committee chair, Meg Hillier, called the state of homelessness in England “shameful.”

“As we approach Christmas there are thousands of children in temporary accommodation—a salutary reminder of the human cost of policy failure,” she said.

She argued that government decisions are “not made in a vacuum” and said that the evidence presented by organisations that work with homeless people should “serve as a wake-up call.”

Hillier continued: “The government must do more to understand and measure the real-world costs and causes of homelessness and put in place the joined-up strategy that is so desperately needed.

“That means properly addressing the shortage of realistic housing options for those at risk of homelessness or already in temporary accommodation. More fundamentally, it means getting a grip on the market’s failure to provide genuinely affordable homes, both to rent and to buy.”

She added that the committee does not share the government’s faith in the “cure-all potential” of the Homelessness Reduction Act.

She concluded: “There are practical steps it can take now—for example, targeting financial support on local authorities with acute shortages of suitable housing, rather than those councils which are simply ready to spend—that would make a real difference to people’s lives.

“We urge it to respond positively and swiftly to the recommendations set out in our Report.”

Top image: Trowbridge Estate

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