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Homelessness Reduction Act: Doomed to fail?

Homeless man on street

The Homelessness Reduction Act, given Royal Assent in April 2017, is the first major piece of homelessness legislation for 15 years. But it can only have work if councils are given the resources to deliver its measures, argues Richard Bucklow

Across 2015 – 2016 homelessness rates increased by 16 per cent in England, with an estimated 4,134 people bedded down outside, according to figures published by the Department for Communities and Local Government. London accounted for 23 per cent of that figure.

Obviously people don’t choose to become homeless. Usually, they are facing a crisis that’s not necessarily related to a lack of housing alone. Homelessness can occur, for example, because of poor mental health, redundancy, relationship breakdown, addiction and domestic abuse.

But what’s being done about it?

In April 2017, the Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) passed into law – the first major piece of legislation to combat homelessness in 15 years.  The Act was inspired by the work of Crisis, the national homelessness charity. In 2015, the charity sent undercover researchers to 16 local authorities councils to assess the quality of support for single homeless people.  

In 50 out of 87 visits, the researcher was turned away with little to no help. In response, Crisis launched the ‘No One Turned Away’ campaign, calling for politicians to review the help that single homeless people in England receive under law. In summer 2015, it convened a panel of experts whose recommendations formed the basis of the private members bill that became the Homelessness Reduction Act.

"The Act will also require local housing authorities to help all eligible applicants, rather than just those with a ‘priority need’"

When it becomes active in 2018, the HRA will oblige councils to start assessing someone at risk of being made homeless 56 days before losing their home. The government has pledged £61 million to councils to support this.

The Act will also require local housing authorities to help all eligible applicants, rather than just those with a ‘priority need’. It builds on the preventative approach by requiring public authorities to notify the housing authority if someone they’re working with is facing homelessness.

Outside of England, the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 put a greater emphasis on prevention, as well as offering a duty of care to those at risk of homelessness. This also influenced the creation of the HRA, which aimed to replicate the successes of the Welsh legislation.

Overall, the Housing (Wales) Act has provided significant improvement. Most non-priority need households are now getting a superior service, but gaps still exist and households that are non-priority need, intentionally homeless, or unreasonably failing to cooperate, collectively make up approximately 23 per cent of everyone owed a housing duty.

So what will change in London? It would be good to see an increase in prevention officers with a duty to assist everyone who might be at risk of homelessness. This is a key way in which local authorities can combat the increase in homelessness reported to the DCLG.

"Internal restructures of councils should be considered to cater for increased team sizes which can dedicate more time to people at risk"

In order to have this happen, internal restructures of councils should be considered to cater for increased team sizes which can dedicate more time to people at risk rather than people in need solely.

Despite the rise in government funding, cuts to services across the last five years have left councils unable to deal with the volume of people to whom they owe a duty of care. So now we wonder, will £61 million be nearly enough to meet demand?

In addition, the increased number of temporary staff used by councils will also increase their internal cost significantly. However, the broader skill set that temporary staff can offer, bringing the best practices from a variety of councils, is arguably worth its weight in gold.

Although the demand of meeting homeless services is high, the HRA is absolutely a step in the right direction. Will it succeed in its aims? Only time will tell but we’re certainly optimistic.

Richard Bucklow is principal consultant with Oyster Patnership

Image | iStock

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