Homelessness: the road to prevention

The Local Government Homelessness Commission

People sleeping rough on the streets is one of the most visible and distressing signs of failing public policy. It is a clear sign that the social fabric is not holding together and that as a society we are allowing people to fall through the cracks.

Yet rough sleeping is only the tip of the iceberg. The number of people who are actually homeless, living in temporary accommodation, bed and breakfasts, sofa surfing, or living precariously at no fixed abode in other ways, is far higher. Though an estimated 4,751 people slept on the streets each night across the UK in 2017, there are far more people who are hidden homeless. In fact Shelter recently estimated that there were 320,000 people recorded as homeless in Britain this year, 13,000, or 4%, more than last year. That means 36 new people become homeless every day.

This is a failure of public policy, as the Observer recently commented, which can have awful effects for vulnerable people. But it is also staggeringly expensive. According to the National Audit Office, local authorities in the UK spent £1.15bn on homelessness services in 2015-16. This is the cost of a largely acute and reactive approach to social problems. That money would be far better spent on preventative services, that stop people becoming homeless in the first place.

Tackling homelessness and addressing its causes is a long-term project that needs to draw on partners and organisations from across the public sector. In short, it cannot be solved by homelessness services alone. The Homelessness Reduction Act (2017) has expanded the responsibility of English local authorities towards those deemed eligible and unintentionally homeless, requiring them to put preventative plans in place. LGiU is half way through a commission, led by leaders from two of our member councils, that is investigating precisely how councils can fulfil this obligation.

Many vulnerable people, particularly young people, have complex needs such as a history of mental health problems, criminality or substance abuse, but they have fallen through the cracks rather than being helped by their local authorities. There are significant numbers of care leavers, for example, who are known to their council, who have received council services in the past, yet still find themselves isolated and at risk of losing a place to live.

In this article I will outline our recent discussions about how councils can support young people, and how they can use their data to join up services more effectively. This is all part of LGIU’s Local Government Homelessness Commission, which is at the halfway stage. Chaired by Cllrs Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council, and Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks, the Commission is seeking practical and radical ways that local government can work to prevent homelessness in the future. It will report fully early next year.

Young people

Photo Credit: harryboschlondon Flickr via Compfight cc

According to Centrepoint 103,000 young people approached their council in 2017/18 to say they were at risk of homelessness. Around thirteen per cent of these people were accepted as statutorily homeless, while thirty five per cent received prevention and relief support. Just over half did not receive documented help from the council.

Council responsibilities towards everyone deemed at risk of homelessness have expanded significantly under the Homelessness Reduction Act (2017). This means that all young people (aged under 25) presenting as homeless or at risk of homelessness must now be assessed by a housing officer.

The most recent meeting of the Local Government Homelessness Commission, chaired by Cllr Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council, focussed on support for young people and other high needs groups. We had excellent presentations from Centrepoint, London Borough of Southwark, and Social Finance/De Paul. There are a number of key policy areas that have a big impact on youth homelessness, such as low levels of education, employment and training, poor health, poor mental health, substance abuse, contact with the criminal justice system. All of these can combine in complex ways and at key times in a young person’s life, when they are taking school exams or leaving home.

Abi Gill from Centrepoint told the Commission about some of the key issues and challenges around preventing homelessness among young people:

  • Family breakdown is the biggest cause of homelessness. Over half who presented in 2017/18 had recently been asked to leave their home by a parent or guardian and it was the principle factor in thirty per cent of cases. But this needs to be examined carefully as it is a complex area. Many families will have experienced low-level or higher-level problems for a long time, which means that early, careful intervention is essential.
  • Young people who are leaving care often fall through the cracks. Last year twenty eight per cent of Centrepoint service-users were care leavers, many of whom move from care directly to supported housing, so are not necessarily identified as homeless, but others have more difficult transitions, which can be particularly chaotic. All young people need something different and tend to move regularly between options, such as temporary accommodation, the private rented sector, council housing and supported accommodation. Tracking and supporting young people through this journey, ensuring they don’t fall through the cracks, is a key challenge for councils.
  • Young people are more likely to be sofa surfing (hidden homeless) than rough sleeping as they often have friends or other contacts who can put them up. This often means it takes longer for them to seek help and to come to the council’s attention.
  • Low levels of education, employment and training is a significant factor for many young people, which can make it challenging to build a stable and independent life.
  • There can be significant difficulties in accessing adequate NHS services. Mental health issues, problems sleeping, substance misuse occur regularly among young people. These are exacerbated by the recent rise in levels of food poverty
  • Young homeless people are vulnerable to exploitation by gangs or loan sharks and can end up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.

Universal Credit is also a particular problem for homelessness prevention. Many people are likely to face delays in their payments and reductions are making it increasingly difficult for young people to find stable, long-term accommodation. Many end up in rent arrears, while private landlords often refuse to accept tenants who are Universal Credit recipients. This has an impact at both ends of the scale. It places many at risk of losing their accommodation and becoming homeless, but it also makes it harder for young people to move on from temporary or supported accomodation. The Commission heard from London Borough of Southwark who are facing problems with the amount they spend on temporary accommodation and with reduced housing stock, which makes the council increasinly reliant on the private rented sector.

There are structural problems that lead to young people becoming homeless, and more needs to be done to prevent this. Central government departments, in particular, are notoriously bad at working together to tackle issues that cut across policy areas and places. In a recent report Crisis outlined how a strategic approach to homelessness prevention requires all of government to work together. It cannot just be a job for homelessness services. The same goes for local government. Poor connections between councils and criminal justice organisations, especially community rehabilitation companies, can be devastating. Young people are often released on a Friday afternoon, with just £46 in their pocket and no housing lined up.

While many young people often miss out on the support they need because budgets have been cut, there are ways that councils can work to ensure departments and service areas are talking to each other. Cllr Stephanie Cryan, cabinet member for housing at London Borough of Southwark, told the Commission about the council’s strategy which does just this. We also heard from Rachelle Angeline of Social Finance, who told us about projects she has worked on with young people who are not in education, employment or training. The projects brought together multiple partners to support young people with complex needs in this area.

Through its Youth Homelessness Databank, Centrepoint is building a comprehensive picture of the 103,000 young people who are homeless in the UK. Good data usage is an essential component of smart and preventative approaches to homelessness, as we heard in a previous session of the Commission.


In a meeting chaired by Cllr Peter Fleming, leader of Sevenoaks District Council, the Commission heard from three councils, Bristol, Hackney and Croydon, doing innovative and forward thinking work to harness the potential of good data use in homelessness prevention. This is to be celebrated and shared as widely as possible. But it is important to remember that the vast bulk of the local government sector is not at this stage yet. Most councils do not have the capacity, resources or the infrastructure to begin thinking about how to use data like this. Hackney Council’s lesson about getting the basics right before trying anything too advanced is a salient one, and some careful, staged, support for other authorities would be extremely useful.

A key point of the discussion was that local authorities may have extensive data but may not always have the capacity to analyse it. Capacity needs to be developed, therefore, but it is important that local authorities do not stop trying to influence the structural social issues that lead to homelessness. This is particularly pertinent as, even with a far more sophisticated use of data, people in crisis are often only provided with a limited number of options by their council.

Universal Credit could have an adverse impact on homelessness when it is rolled out, with debt levels predicted to increase among those already vulnerable. But local authorities are also worried that they risk losing important data in the transition.

Language is key and good dialogue with citizens is vital. It is particularly important to demonstrate to the public the value of predictive and preventative work. Indeed, one of the key challenges currently is how data collection is perceived by citizens. There have been recent concerns over the use of personal data by councils, for example, and well publicised disputes about how the public sector uses personal information such as health records. Not to mention the stories about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.  In this environment the panel agreed that we in the public sector need to make the positive case for using data about citizens.

Local authorities have always held a lot of disparate data about people and it is necessary to make the public aware of this. We also need to demonstrate the reasons behind collecting and using this data in order to try to help vulnerable peoples’ lives better. This should help to mitigate fears and to build a more constructive dialogue.

Reduction and prevention

So how do we begin to move from reaction towards preventing homelessness before it occurs?

  • Finding ways to engage proactively with sofa-surfers and others in unstable accommodation will be a priority for many councils. Indeed, many councils are keen to find ways to identify these people as early as possible, so they can provide targeted support before they run out of options and require more drastic and expensive interventions such as temporary accommodation.
  • Housing First is an approach that is growing swiftly in popularity, having been adopted abroad in countries like Finland, but also piloted in the UK in cities like Manchester and Glasgow. By finding accommodation for someone in the first instance, and then using that as a base to begin providing other kinds of targeted support in a more stable environment, the evidence appears to suggest that people are more likely to make the journey through to living independently. MHCLG are increasingly supportive of the model. The APPG for Ending Homelessness has found previously that the Housing First approach was successful in preventing homelessness and meeting the additional emotional and recovery needs of survivors of domestic abuse.
  • Creating partnerships with public and third sector organisations to expand the range of support on offer. Possible examples include online housing advice services and co-locating teams.
  • Improving public knowledge more generally about local housing shortages, or the factors that lead to homlessness and the options that councils are now able to provide.
  • Building trust and willingness of people to engage with the service. Traditional models often struggle to connect to individuals and may not have wider public support.

The legislation in the Homelessness Reduction Act requires councils to make this move towards prevention. But it is easier said than done. Evidence from Wales, on which the English legislation is based, and the English pilots, suggests that the new duties will demand an additional twenty six per cent in terms of work load.  Plans should be tailored and flexible, to include specific, personalised housing advice and support, but this of course requires different kinds of skills and training.

The need for “100% culture change”, appears to have been borne out by the experience of trailblazer councils such as Southwark, as we heard at the recent Commission meeting. It’s worth considering what we mean by “100% culture change”. The shift towards prevention and away from reactive services, which HRA has necessitated, is a huge organisational challenge for many councils. Trailblazers and early adopters have found that it requires a great deal of work and determination to break internal organisational silos in order to embed homelessness prevention across the public realm. But even frontline staff have had to approach their work differently, to begin addressing the wider determinants of homelessness. Part of Southwark’s work has involved training and support for homelessness staff around working with domestic violence situations, for example.

It means everyone, from managers to key workers in all departments across the council thinking differently about their work and their interactions with citizens. It means that homelessness is properly situated in the network of wider causal factors, so staff know what the important signs might be. It is everyone’s problem.

Update June 2019

LGiU Homelessness Commission 2019: Final Report

The LGiU Local Government Homelessness Commission was set up to investigate how councils can fulfil their obligation to prevent homelessness. This report is the first assessment of the state of homelessness prevention from the perspective of local government.

Read more on LGiU Homelessness Commission 2019: Final Report