Why has rough sleeping got worse?

In recent years there has been a huge increase in the numbers of people sleeping rough in Southampton and Portsmouth, and in towns and cities across the UK. People are sleeping in shop doorways, parks, car parks – anywhere that offers some sort of shelter at night from adverse weather conditions.

Street homelessness and rough sleeping is not a new phenomenon in our communities, but this crisis seems all the worse because we didn’t see it at current levels five years ago. The questions to ask are:

· Who are they?
· What has gone wrong?
· What are the answers?

Who are they?

There has been a range of research undertaken by various organisations looking at the backgrounds of homeless people. The research shows that the three biggest factors in people’s lives are a traumatic childhood, problematic drug and alcohol use and mental ill health – or any combination of these three. These factors exist in their lives before they find themselves on the streets, which often results in substance misuse and mental health issues becoming more serious and increasingly entrenched.

Rough sleepers are more likely than the general population to have been in care, to have witnessed violence at home, to have had substance misusing parents and to have left school without qualifications. Research also shows that people who become homeless and then remain so for long periods of time are more likely than the average member of society to become involved with the criminal justice system and find themselves in prison. We are not talking about people who have just had a minor set-back or a run of bad luck, but people who urgently need help and support in order to overcome the serious issues they are facing in their lives.

However this does not fully explain the increasing number of people sleeping rough, as the levels of childhood trauma, substance misuse and mental health issues have not significantly changed in the last five years. So what has been happening? What has gone wrong for people?

SSJ has identified three underlying causes of the increased numbers of rough sleepers:

National Housing Shortage

Housing is a “market”, based on competition. The people who are least able to “compete” in the market will find themselves unable to secure any kind of accommodation, with many of them becoming homeless.

There is a widely acknowledged housing shortage in the UK and this impacts on our service users in a number of ways. The rising cost of property has resulted in some of the lower quality private rented accommodation being converted into apartments for sale. This reduces accommodation available for those on benefits. This is compounded by the freezing of housing benefit levels, making much of the available accommodation unaffordable to many.

We are also starting to see private landlords being less willing to accept tenants in receipt of benefits following the introduction of Universal Credit and the uncertainty this has created in relation to how they can guarantee their rental income. The combination of the housing element of the benefit being paid direct to the claimant in four-weekly chunks and with a minimum wait of six weeks for the start of a new claim has proved to be too much of a risk for some landlords.

The lack of good quality, affordable accommodation also makes it much more difficult for people to move on from hostels or other supported housing into their own rented accommodation, which in turn prevents the most needy from accessing supported housing.

Cuts to Services

Significant cuts to public services over the last five years has greatly reduced the numbers of support workers, social workers, mental health specialists, domiciliary care workers, community wardens, Police, probation staff, housing staff and youth workers. This means that when an individual experiences some sort of crisis, such as a relationship breakdown, an eviction, losing their job or a delay in getting their benefits, there is much less support available to help resolve the crisis, which is then more likely to escalate and result in people sleeping rough.
The target to save 25% of local government spending has had a clear impact on the delivery of services at a local level, and this is expected to be an increasing issue, while tight controls on budgets continue.

New Requirements of the Benefit System

A recent survey of rough sleepers in Southampton showed that some people have given up trying to claim state benefits. The gradually reducing eligibility for sickness benefits, the increased requirements to demonstrate that you are actively looking for work and other restrictions on who can claim, have made claiming state benefits more difficult over the last five years. This is deliberate government policy, to stop people assuming they can “live off the state” without taking steps to become self-sufficient. People who fail to meet the requirements have their benefits reduced for increasing periods of time (sanctions) or have their claims disallowed all together.

This has resulted in some people becoming fully dependant on income from begging and food from soup kitchens and day centres. However they are not recent arrivals in our cities; most are known to services, including substance misuse and mental health services, and have strong local connections.

This is a new issue, which did not exist five years ago, and is a cause for concern as it will be increasingly difficult to help them to re-engage with services and housing in the future.

What is the Answer?

Each area has its own approach to reducing rough sleeping and homelessness. Supported housing models are based on moving people initially into highly staffed services where they can be provided with a range of support and interventions ton help them address their problems and engage with positive change. As people begin to feel more settled and secure they can move to more independent, lower staffed services, eventually returning to independent living in either shared or self-contained rented accommodation.

For these models to work there needs to be throughput, to prevent each unit silting up. The challenge is in providing enough move-on housing to ensure people can move-on from the hostels when they are ready for greater independence, thereby creating more spaces for those who might otherwise be homeless.

We have made a commitment as a housing provider to acquire more accommodation that will provide long-term, safe homes for homeless and vulnerable people. We have secured government grants, which we can match with mortgages that are repaid through the rent. This is a sustainable model that provides independent accommodation for people who are viewed as too high risk by private landlords. We do not require a deposit, any rent up front or a guarantor and being in receipt of benefits will not prevent people from accessing our housing.  We pride ourselves on being a tolerant landlord – this doesn’t mean that anything goes, but it does mean that we try to understand behaviours that other landlords may simply find unacceptable, and find a way to help the individual without threatening their accommodation.  Our residents are also frequently very tolerant of one another as they have their own lived-experience and understand how difficult it can be to overcome the problems associated with homelessness.

Our willingness to house people who may otherwise be excluded from the housing market and support them to maintain their accommodation means that we are also playing a significant part in the prevention agenda. The end result is that people who may otherwise be homeless can access sustainable housing, with support available when they need it.

-Words by The Society of St James-

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