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New legislation to help end homelessness in the UK

19th June 2017

Homelessness in the UK

New legislation to combat homelessness in the UK was passed in March 2017, placing more responsibility on local councils. The Homelessness Reduction Bill aims to decrease the amount of people living on the streets in the UK by intervening earlier and offering help for all homeless people, not just those in ‘priority need’. In this article, Law Absolute takes a look at new legislation to prevent homelessness in the UK, what charities think of the progress and how Britain is dealing with the crisis.

Existing anti-homelessness legislation

Several laws have been introduced in the UK over the years in a bid to curb homelessness. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Act 2002 placed legal duties on local housing authorities to make sure that help and advice were available to those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness, free of charge.

Councils have a duty to provide housing for those in priority need and who are considered ‘unintentionally homeless’. This includes:

  • Households with dependent children
  • Pregnant women
  • People who are vulnerable due to mental illness or physical disability
  • Teenagers aged 16 or 17
  • Those aged up to 20 who have previously been in care
  • People who were vulnerable as a result of time spent in care, custody or the armed forces
  • People who have had to flee their home due to violence or the threat of violence

According to a BBC report, many people who don’t have a place to live “are not considered vulnerable enough” in legal terms to qualify for housing. The article also revealed the most common and fastest-growing reason for homelessness is the ending of an assured short-hold tenancy, allowing landlords to evict tenants after an initial fixed term without a legal reason.

If a council places someone under the ‘intentionally homeless’ category, they are not considered to be owed accommodation. The most common examples of this are failure to pay rent without good reason (good reason being illness, redundancy, failure to manage personal finances due to mental ill health), or being evicted because of anti-social behaviour.

Despite rules being in place, some councils have inappropriately categorised people as ‘intentionally homeless’. According to the BBC article, a council deemed a pregnant woman ‘intentionally homeless’ because she refused to stay in a hostel as it was dirty. This decision was overturned in court. Similar incidents include a woman who was found to be ‘intentionally homeless’ after she fled her matrimonial home after experiencing domestic abuse, but not violence.

New Homelessness Reduction Bill

Houses of parliament

The Homelessness Reduction Bill, put forward by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, passed its parliamentary stages in March 2017. This new piece of legislation, which lawyers and those seeking work with legal recruitment agencies should be aware of, requires earlier intervention by councils to prevent homelessness. It also means councils will need to provide advice and help to all affected, not just those protected under existing laws, such as those considered to have a ‘priority need’.

The Bill will ensure councils start assessing someone at risk of being made homeless 56 days before losing their home. Bob Blackman told the BBC: “It is profoundly wrong that homeless people who approach their council for help can be turned away to sleep on the street at the moment and that legislation in this area hasn’t changed for the last four decades.”

According to the BBC report, the number of people sleeping on the streets increased by 16% last year, up from 3,569 in 2015 to 4,134 in 2016. Lord Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association, believes a greater change is needed in order to solve the UK’s homelessness crisis. He said: “It is clear that legislative change alone will not resolve homelessness. It is crucial that the government recognise and address the wider factors that are increasing homelessness, such as the lack of affordable housing and welfare reforms. Without this, the bill will struggle to achieve its aim of reducing homelessness.”

What do charities think?

Centrepoint, a leading youth homelessness charity, welcomed the Bill but warned that those not classed as ‘priority need’ such as parents, those fleeing domestic abuse or care leavers, are still at risk of falling through the gaps. In a recent statement, the charity said: “The Act is intended to help shift the focus to early intervention and prevention by councils, before individuals or families reach the ‘crisis point’ of having nowhere to go. Councils will now be obliged to provide free advice and support to anyone, regardless of level of need, within 56 days, rather than the previous 28 days. However, councils are only legally required to house those with priority needs.”

Paul Noblet, head of public affairs at the Centrepoint, added: “The new Act is a step in the right direction but with 150,000 young people approaching their local council for support every year, there is still a long way to go to ensure those who have no home find somewhere safe to stay.

“Many vulnerable young people will still not meet the Government’s criteria for emergency housing, leaving them facing a terrible choice between the streets or resorting to desperate measures like staying with strangers.”

Homeless in UK

Despite the potential of the new Bill, many charities remain sceptical. “It’s impossible to say whether the Homelessness Reduction Bill will have any effect at all in the current political circumstances,” said Miriam Morris, director at charity Church Housing Trust. “The Bill will only be effective if there is sufficient funding for service providers to implement it.

“At the moment sufficient funds have not been allocated, nor are they likely to be in the next couple of years under the current government and its preoccupation with Brexit.”

Church Housing Trust, established in 1882, focuses on helping the homeless to rebuild their lives. The charity works closely with homeless people in central London and has seen worrying trends develop as the key cause of homelessness. Morris added: “The end of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy is now the number one reason for homelessness among young people to whom local authorities have a statutory housing duty.

“Housing advice can be useful in these cases, and is relatively straightforward to provide. However to be a success it requires that there are suitable and affordable homes available, which in many places there are not.”

Along with Assured Shorthold Tenancies, the charity states relationship breakdown is another key reason for homelessness. Morris added: “Often this relationship breakdown is the result of mental or physical ill-health, addiction, job-loss or debt, or a combination of these factors. It is not easy to prevent these people from becoming homeless, as the root causes of their predicament are complex and hard to resolve.

“Debt advice, wages, job security, mental health services, rehab and social services are all diminishing and making it even harder to stop increasing numbers of people ending up on the street.”

With the current state of UK politics in disarray, it seems that the initial excitement about the Homelessness Reduction Bill has turned into concern. “To successfully prevent homelessness we need to address the root causes of homelessness, rather than expect Local Authorities to find solutions on a case by case basis,” said Morris.

“If we can prevent people from becoming homeless this would save the State a great deal of money. Once someone becomes street homeless their mental and physical health deteriorates very quickly and it is much more difficult and costly to get them back into a home and a place in society. We know this from our work of funding the particular training, support and items homeless individuals need.”

Step By Step, another charity supporting young homeless people in the UK, echoed this message. Amanda Dubarry, chief executive at the charity, said: "Any improved regulatory provision for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness can only be a good thing, BUT, with very limited additional provision (resources) to implement the changes there can only be limited effectiveness."

Amanda claims the necessary amount of funding to support the new Act may differ greatly to what has been proposed. She added: "The additional funding across the country amounts to £61m, and it is likely that ten times that amount is needed to really be impactful. The other key point to note is that the Act is focussed around homelessness prevention work, which is vital, but is only one part of the picture. It does not address the significant cuts to homelessness services which have occured over the last few years, nor does it provide additional resouce for service delivery, quality and practice work in the sector, or innovation initiatives. It is by nature then extremely limited in what it will achieve for those already experiencing homelessness."

Step by Step works with two local authorities, Hart District Council and Rushmoor Borough Council, who are "early introducers of the principles of the legislation", according to Amanda. The experience so far has been positive. Amanda said: "For the young people we work to support, we are expecting the Act will allow them to be helped by housing departments at an earlier stage, which will in turn help to avoid crisis placements into unsuitable accommodation located away from family and other support networks and their school, college or work. 

"We also welcome the provision of the Act which will allow housing departments to take the specific needs of vulnerable people in account when planning to meet their housing needs, as this is not how they are currently dealt with, and it is very clear that a 'one size fits all' approach does not work for the most vulnerable in our society.

"Ultimately the Act continues to refer to 'priority needs groups' and it remains those in these groups which local authorities will have a responsibility to house, which is a real concern. Local authorities will have to show they have taken 'reasonable steps' to help secure acommodation for those falling outside of the priority needs groups, and we are concerned that these young people could receive little or no tangible support given the resource restrictions within local authorities."

Community projects

With the number of homeless people, including rough sleepers, still on the rise in the UK, many smaller projects have sought to find solutions in some areas. On the Isle of Wight, The Bus Shelter project launched to provide safe overnight accommodation for rough sleepers on a refurbished bus. It is based in Newport on the Isle of Wight and offers homeless people a place to eat, unwind and sleep. A similar effort has been launched in North Devon by a local organisation, Survival Bags, which supports vulnerable people in the region. According to the North Devon Gazette, the group is aiming to provide 16 sleeping pods, a kitchen, toilet and shower on its converted bus. A fundraising effort is currently underway.

Founded in 2012, StreetLink offers a referral scheme so that members of the public can phone in or use their website to report people sleeping rough. The site allows people to alert local authorities in England and helps to connect homeless people with local services to get support. Another campaign using technology to combat homelessness is the Safer off the Streets (SOS) campaign in Bristol, which saw electronic contactless donation points set up across the city. The idea is to make donating easier for the public, who may not have loose change. Instead, they can simply use their card to donate £2 to the campaign, which will be put towards a fund to offer four night shelters with 70 emergency beds for the city’s homeless. David Ingerslev, project manager at St Mungo’s and Rough Sleeping Partnership lead, told South West News Service (SWNS): “The campaign has raised nearly £40,000 and we are pleased with the support from the community.”

In cities such as London and Manchester communities have come together to oppose “anti-homeless spikes” installed outside businesses in the centres. In Manchester, local mum Jennie Platt covered the spikes in cushions, pillows and sandwiches for homeless people, with a sign saying “take a seat and have a bite to eat”. Jennie told The Metro: “I thought it was a really mean and a Scroogey thing to go, it is really unnecessary. It’s a spot where people can keep warm and sheltered, people don’t need to be that mean.” As a result of the protest, the spikes were removed. But they are still appearing in locations throughout the UK, prompting local councils to take action.

Image credit: Marc Bruneke, Kamyar Adi