By Rob Payne
What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?
We recently asked Danny, a man who overcame his experience with homelessness, that very question.
‘Home is a safe place you know you can come back to — where you don’t have to look over your shoulder, but can relax and think ahead,’ he said.
We all need the safety and stability that having a home provides. On World Homeless Day, it is appropriate to ask the question, ‘what would it take to end homelessness in the UK’?
Before we look at solutions, let’s arm ourselves with some facts.
How many people in the UK are homeless*?
In England alone, according to figures from Shelter (Jan, 2023), 271,000 people were recorded as homeless in England – that is one in every 208 people, and doesn’t include those who don’t show up in the statistics due to sofa surfing and other forms of temporary accommodation.
Of these, approximately:
- 250,000 were living in temporary accommodation – most of whom were families
- 123,000 were children
- 15,000 were in hostels or supported accommodation
- 2,400 were sleeping rough on any given night.
*Data for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is collected differently to England, so it is difficult to estimate a total for the UK — see Crisis for more details.
What causes homelessness?
Here are three of the main structural factors that contribute to homelessness in the UK, and how they affect our service:
A lack of affordable homes, and inadequate welfare support for those that are available
There needs to be an increased supply of and access to truly affordable homes – temporary accommodation is very expensive, and it is not realistic to just rely on the private sector to provide the housing we need. Rents have risen over 10 percent in the past 12 months because demand is outstripping supply, but the local housing allowance has been frozen since 2020, so it is not enough to cover market rents.
Consequently, if people on low or medium incomes lose their existing home, it is extremely difficult to find a new one. We have noticed a reduction in the number of flats offered to us, and people are having to lower their expectations. Our clients often need to move further away from their existing community if they want to be housed.
A lack of suitable emergency accommodation
Councils have a legal duty to house families in emergency accommodation, but many people without children don’t meet the required threshold. There are some emergency shelters for people who are single, but there is not enough capacity to meet the demand. The waiting lists for supported accommodation have increased, and there is a lot of demand for private rented accommodation, so it is not surprising the numbers of rough sleepers have started to rise again.
If people facing rough sleeping or other dangerous situations can be offered emergency accommodation with the right support, they can then more easily be helped to find suitable long-term accommodation.
However, if people are left to survive on the streets, their physical and mental health suffers and the chances of them turning to drink or drugs increases.
We are glad that we are able to work in partnership with many night shelters to help their guests find longer-term options and wish that there were enough spaces for all those that need them.
A dysfunctional immigration system
Many people who have been granted refugee status now have just 7 days to set up a bank account, claim benefits and find housing before leaving home office accommodation. This is nowhere near enough time – the recommended time is 56 days.
In addition, many of those who have migrated to the UK have no recourse to public funds and are not allowed to work so are stuck and many end up homeless – over half of all people sleeping rough in London are non-UK nationals.
At Two Step we have noticed a significant increase in refugees being referred to our service. They want to work and contribute to this country, but they need time and support to do so – instead, many are having to leave their accommodation with nowhere to go so are homeless.
Surely there is a better way.
So, what would it take to end homelessness in the UK?
In addition to addressing the three areas above, there are other changes that would be needed. Homelessness is a complex problem with many underlying factors, and addressing it requires a multi-faceted approach.
It is beyond the scope of this article to do any more than outline some of the measures. However, here is a brief introduction into some of the things that would contribute to ending homelessness — and how we at Two Step are playing our part, thanks to our dedicated staff, partners, supporters and funders.
Preventing homelessness before it occurs
It is better to prevent people from losing their homes in the first place, rather than waiting until people are at a crisis point. For example, we help many people resolve problems with their benefit claims, landlord and rent arrears, which helps prevent homelessness. This requires trust, skills and patience – however, many services are so stretched that they don’t have enough time to help people sufficiently, and people fall through the cracks.
Organisations that help people need adequate resources to employ and retain the staff to help people effectively, or they will have to close services.
We are grateful to our supporters and funders who have helped us retain our experienced and dedicated staff team during the recent challenges.
Increasing the supply of affordable housing by building homes for social rent and ‘Housing First’
Councils have a legal duty to help prevent people from becoming homeless – but without the affordable homes to place people in, there is only so much they can do.
The number of Bed and Breakfast placements in England has risen more than five-fold since 2009. To resolve this, councils must be supplied with the means to build the hundreds of thousands of social homes that are needed. This would save money in the long run, since B&B accommodation is very expensive – not to mention the social cost that unsuitable and insecure housing has on the families and individuals affected.
Housing First provides a person with higher support needs somewhere to live with the necessary support put around them. This works well for people whose support needs are too high for our service and it has been good to see this approach piloted in several parts of the UK.
Providing welfare support that helps people out of poverty, so that they can support themselves
Welfare benefits and support have fallen significantly in value since 2010 – this contributes to many being stuck in a poverty trap rather than having a safety net.
I remember talking to one of our clients after he was housed – due to having to pay back emergency welfare loans, he didn’t have enough money to pay for heating – and definitely not enough to buy shoes for job interviews.
We managed to source some funding to help him, but it surely it would be more cost-effective and more dignified if the benefit system was designed to support people out of poverty rather just than helping them to survive within it.
I have spoken with many who feel like they are not much better off working because they lose so much of their housing support as their earnings increase.
This means that they stay in supported housing or a hostel rather than earning enough to find private rented accommodation – surely if the benefit system better incentivised working instead of taking away 55p in every extra pound people earned, many would work more hours and the overall cost to the taxpayer would be lower in the long run.
Want to know more?
Crisis produced a comprehensive and fully costed plan for ending homelessness in the UK in 2018 called ‘Everyone In’. The plan showed how ending homelessness would save money in the long run.
What you can do
Want to help someone you see on the street or find out about organisations near you? We have collated several useful resources here.
To support us as we fight against homelessness in London, click here. Just hit ‘Two Step’ in the dropdown menu.