Close the Systematic Homelessness Pipeline in the UK
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Homelessness is an unpleasant experience. And surely the only thing worse than suffering something unpleasant, is that the thing is also preventable. In the UK, there is a systematic pipeline feeding a growing pool of homelessness. I will explain to you where, how and why, before I detail the two ways we can close this pipeline so no more fall in the abyss. I almost did, along with my girlfriend and 3month-old son... and it's not fun. I would like your help to bring about meaningful improvement for homeless people in our country.
Homelessness can happen to anyone, and through no fault of their own. A leading homelessness charity in the UK (Shelter) report that the number one leading cause of homelessness is end of tenancy evictions by private Landlords. One moment you're standing upright on both feet, and life is making sense, and the next... you're wondering which park will be safer to sleep in. Why isn't their more legal protection for tenants? This is how I almost ended up; after challenging my landlord on something, he refused to renew my contract which was due for renewal soon. He'd told us we could stay there, that we were great tenants, and even emailed us about how well we kept the house... until we had a disagreement (and no, we never paid the rent late). We had planned accordingly to stay there, and couldn't afford to live anywhere else in London because of our reduced household income as my partner was receiving maternity leave pay at the time. But he wanted us out, and we spent 3 months thinking we might end up out in the cold. He didn't care there was a baby involved.
The right to adequate standard of living is a human right recognised by the United Nations, and our country has the ability to provide for that right, but currently does not do so. I invite you to help me improve policies with my following suggestions so that we can address what seems to be a well-protected, systematic pipeline to homelessness. Research shows rents as a proportion of household incomes in London are 50% or more and 70%+ in some areas. Increasingly people are pushed out of the private rented sector and must fall into house sharing, then either social rented sector, or soft homelessness (sofa surfing), then eventually rough sleeping. End of tenancy evictions from private Landlords is the number one cause of homelessness in the country.
Now I don't want you to get the idea homelessness has an even spread across the UK, it's not. Scotland and Wales are taking exemplary leaps and bounds to stick to their commitments of ending homelessness in their countries (and not just rhetoric... they are making legal changes to get this done). However, in England and Northern Ireland the political effort level to combat homelessness is just not there, to the extent that both countries still use the Priority Needs test to determine who is or is not eligible for state support if they become homeless. According to this rule of our law (which Scotland and Wales did away with), the only groups in society are entitled to housing assistance are households with dependent children, with pregnant women, those who are mentally ill, ex-servicemen/servicewomen, 16 to 17 year old's, 18 to 20 year old's with condition of previously being in care homes, and ex-convicts. So that means you're on your own if you're falling into difficulty with housing and you're: single, in a couple without children yet, not an ex-offender, not ex-military, not mentally ill. There's a LOT of people who fit that bracket. And it's not an immigration issue; the research actually shows the most common homeless character profile is a white British men (Shelter, 2014).
The good news is we can close this pipeline.
My campaign aims lead me to write a book, In Our Hands, which challenges the stereotype of the homeless. After condensed summaries of facts and figures, and stories of homeless people visiting The Upper Room (a charity in West London providing help for the disadvantaged people in our society), the book goes on to make a number of suggestions to help alleviate the problem. Some of these suggestions I have discussed through with the councillors, charities, and the Vice Chairman of the Housing Committee at the London Assembly.
The suggestions I would like Parliament to take in consideration are:
Step 1: Adequately Fund local government to enable it to comply with demands of the Homelessness Reduction Bill
The new bill makes clear the role of the local government’s duty of care to prevent homelessness and is commendable in its intentions. However, in its current form the bill puts a greater strain on already strained resources. This will make the provision of care harder, and more difficult to administer. Adequate funding to local government is essential to make good of this new commitment, and without it the new bill is worse than an empty promise.
Step 2: Improve the use of empty dwellings to provide respite for homeless people.
The Department for Communities and Local Government published in April 2015 to have 206,000 long-term (over 6 months) vacant homes and dwellings in England, with just over 20,000 in London alone. This includes privately owned places supplied for housing associations too, the likes of which might need refurbishment or crucial structural repairs. If we were using our resources efficiently, the government would not be trying to speed up the waiting list for housing with their bedroom tax. I would like to see strengthening and encouragement of local government’s Empty Dwellings Management Orders, and that of Compulsory Purchase Orders too.
Step 3: Call for England and Ireland to revise Priority Needs law.
The English and Northern Irish priority need criteria in the assessment of statutory homelessness is extremely prohibitive to who is eligible for support. Single homeless people are seldom ever to be priority need. All homeless people should be priority. It is this way in Scotland and Wales, since they abolished their priority needs test. The removal of priority needs test is more achievable when the government does more to increase the supply of affordable housing and temporary housing in Northern Ireland and England, especially in London. The private sector has already outclassed the councils such as Merton by building decent, affordable housing which now is home to former rough sleepers, and people who were on the council waiting list.
Step 4: Introduce measures to protect security of tenure
The private rented sector is so unstable that it is difficult to put down roots in an area without having to move. The average let is 2years, and buy that time affordability of other properties in the area has diminished if not gone completely. Tenants need security of tenure for a minimum of 2 years, and a safety mechanism on rent increases so that price cannot be used as a means of eviction. The ideal approach may be to take learnings from the German system, and intro
Step 5: Call for greater legal protection of tenants from Landlords.
England and Northern Ireland need some improved measures of protecting people from the power of Landlords, who unfortunately currently benefit from having the law firmly on their side. I urge Sajid Javid to employ the solution from Wales for the government to introduce compulsory licensing of all private Landlords and their agents. This way, it reassures tenants there will be no foul play, and if there is, the weight of the law is there for protection as the licence comes with a code of conduct. This will help remove the sometimes anonymous and impervious nature of Landlords. Currently councils may only license 20% of Landlords, and so they use this to reign in the underperforming ones. The law needs sufficient ‘arming’ which will come at a cost, but to be effective this measure must be able to be enforced, be updated, and introduce a new administrative arm dealing with the management of the licences. It may also reduce instances of Landlords overcrowding houses illegally, and drive up trust in tenants (existing and new) to rent. Licensing Landlords is also a means to ensure they are aware of basic law around renting properties, and legal duties to tenants. Licensing is a way to combat lack of knowledge, which is a root cause of many problems arising in the private rented sector.
Please help prevent homelessness. It's a step towards ending it for good.
(photo credits: MJK23 via Flickr)
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