The number of deaths among rough sleepers increased significantly in 2018. This shows the vital importance of a coherent, preventative and properly funded homelessness strategy.
The Office for National Statistics has released figures showing that 726 people died while sleeping rough in 2018. This is an unprecedented rise of 22% from the previous year, the steepest increase since records began in 2013. In some areas the number of deaths more than doubled from 2017-2018, and drug related deaths increased by 55%. While the government has pledged to eliminate rough sleeping by 2027, there was 165% more people sleeping on the streets in 2018 than in 2010. The bulk of the increase is in London.
But rough sleeping is the tip of the iceberg. For every two people who are sleeping rough on the streets, there are 98 who are homelessness but hidden from view, in shelters, temporary accommodation, hostels and other insecure forms of housing.
Local authorities in England spent £1.39bn on homelessness services in 2017-181 . This is the cost of a reactive approach to acute social problems. That money would be far better spent on preventative services that stop people becoming homeless in the first place. There are also significant knock on costs. In 2015 Crisis estimated the average cost to the public purse, across a range of service areas, of a single homeless person rough sleeping for twelve months was £20,1282.
There needs to be a change in the narrative and the strategic approach around homelessness to acknowledge that it is a deeper and more widespread issue than just rough sleeping. Tackling homelessness means addressing its causes and preventing it from occurring in the first place. This is a long-term project that needs to draw on partners and organisations from across the public sector.
In June LGiU published the final report of the Local Government Homelessness Commission, in which we showed that many of the drivers of homelessness are caused or exacerbated by central government policy, while local government is left to pick up the pieces. Funding is inadequate, but what funding there is is spent unproductively and inefficiently. A dysfunctional housing market, inadequate and badly administered welfare regime largely exemplified by Universal Credit and the Local Housing Allowance, and rising levels of poverty are some of the main factors that result in people losing their homes. The fact that housing is unaffordable for so many people is surely one of the most decisive causes.
The Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) has had a positive impact. It has forced councils to think differently about the homelessness support they provide and has shifted the focus on to a wider range of support activities that draw together different parts of the public sector. But it is a missed opportunity that will not achieve its aims of actually preventing homelessness. The HRA introduces a list of new burdens and duties to councils on the back of nearly a decade of funding reductions that have made it harder to prevent homelessness. The small injection of cash that accompanies it is both inadequate and temporary. The new duties are applied at a late stage, and as such they are reactive, rather than preventative. If the government is serious about tackling homelessness then we need a long-term plan and long-term funding.
To begin addressing these issues, and to support councils on the frontline of homelessness prevention, the report recommended:
- a sustainable housing and homelessness strategy, with adequate funding; the power for councils to control variation in Local Housing Allowance;
- minimum three year tenancies to address instability and uncertainty in the private rented sector; and
- a data toolkit for homelessness prevention, for which the government should invest in a scoping project to identify what information local government needs, particularly from central government departments, where the information is held, and what would make it most useful for preventing homelessness.
Read the full report of the Local Government Homelessness Commission here.