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Select Committee Report misses opportunity to be radical on homelessness

CLG SC hlnSuzanne Fitzpatrick, Sarah Johnsen and Beth Watts reflect on recent recommendations to strengthen the homelessness safety net in England.

Yesterday’s report on homelessness from the cross-party Communities and Local Government Select Committee is right to recognise that single homeless people far too often get a poor response from local authorities and that a step change is required on homelessness prevention. Its endorsement of the ‘Homelessness Reduction Bill’ – a private members bill proposed by Bob Blackman, Conservative MP and committee member – is to be warmly welcomed. So too is the emphasis given to improved access to mental health services and the desperate need for greater investment in social and affordable housing. The report also includes important recommendations on reviewing Local Housing Allowance levels, so that they more closely reflect actual rents, and a much needed recognition of the detrimental impacts of welfare reform on homelessness.

But the Report is wide of the mark and disappointingly cautious in two key areas.  First, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have also pointed out, MPs have missed a golden opportunity to support the scaling-up of the Housing First model for homeless adults with additional complex needs, such as mental health or addiction problems.

Housing First provides this relatively small group of homeless people with rapid access to settled rented housing, coupled with intensive and flexible support, provided on an open-ended basis. It enables them to choose to live in mainstream housing, integrated within society, rather than having to stay in hostels which homeless people often strongly dislike.

The Committee’s dismissal of Housing First in favour of ‘supporting the more mainstream efforts to tackle homelessness and prevent instances of entrenched homelessness ‘ is extraordinarily short-sighted given the now overwhelming body of evidence that, for the great majority of those affected, Housing First offers a much more effective means of meeting their needs.

International studies – including gold-standard randomised control trials – show impressively high housing retention rates in Housing First projects (often 90% at the one-year mark). Some European projects also claim considerable cost savings for Housing First. These have been demonstrated convincingly in the USA, and are consistent with findings in the more limited UK evidence base. JRF estimates scaling up Housing First in the UK could save around £200m per annum after two years in relation to the current group of homeless adults with the most complex needs[i].

It would be a tragedy if the Select Committee’s (doubtless well-intentioned but desperately misdirected) attempt to pour cold water on Housing First was allowed to set back this evidence-based progressive agenda.

The second key area of disappointment relates to the piecemeal and inadequate youth-focused elements of the Committee’s report. Young people under 25 are already three times more likely than older adults to face homelessness, and have been disproportionately impacted (indeed targeted) by post-2010 welfare cuts and sanctions. JSA rates for single under 25s are sub-destitution level, even before taking into account the current freeze on working age benefits which will erode their value further. From April 2017, out-of-work 18-21 year olds who make a new claim for Universal Credit will be ineligible for support with their housing costs unless they fit into a yet to be defined ‘vulnerable’ category.

Seen in this context, the Select Committee’s proposal for the Government to offer under 22s who lose their job a “‘grace period’ of, say, one to two months before the housing element of Universal Credit is withdrawn is tinkering of such a meagre variety that one wonders why it was thought worth including at all. What are unemployed young people to do to avoid homelessness after this brief grace period elapses?

Even more puzzling is the emphasis the Select Committee gives to its proposal to exempt care leavers from having to pay Council Tax until they are 21. To say that the extreme modesty of this proposal is out of all proportion to the extraordinary levels of disadvantage that these young people face would be to overstate its merits. The accompanying suggestion that the government consider reviewing the transition to independence is welcome, but sorely lacking in specificity. The Committee could have much more productively learned from developments in Scotland, for example, where looked-after children are entitled to remain in care up until their 22nd birthday and to receive after-care support until their 26th birthday.

As Terrie Alafat argues in today’s Inside Housing, recent history has shown that it is possible to reduce homelessness. There are recommendations in this Select Committee report that will certainly help. The Homelessness Reduction Bill has the potential to make a significant difference to single homeless people in particular. It is also unarguable that we need a major investment in social and affordable housing. Just as urgent, however, is the need to address the devastating impact that the post-2010 radical cuts in welfare benefits, particularly working age benefits, is having on the low-income households most vulnerable to homelessness and destitution. The uniquely high rates of homelessness and extreme vulnerability faced by young care leavers should make this group a cross-governmental priority.

 

[i] These estimates will be available as part of JRF’s forthcoming plan to solve UK poverty.

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