Coronavirus has had a profound impact on our way of life. People have lost their jobs, their daily routine, and in many tragic cases loved ones.
But as focus shifts onto how the country is going to learn to live with this virus and plot a recovery, we must look for opportunities. And in my view, there is no greater opportunity than the chance to tackle the moral emergency of homelessness.
At the onset of the pandemic, local authorities in the urban West Midlands region moved quickly to accommodate individuals at risk of rough sleeping, making a significant impact. Now, not only we must look at how to sustain this reduction, but also how to prevent the other forms of homelessness. This is possible because for the first time we now know who is rough sleeping, where they are, and what wrap-around support they need.
To the Government’s credit they too have recognised this opportunity, and have moved to seize it. Under ‘Everyone In’, they gave the instruction to Local Authorities to bring all individuals at risk of rough sleeping in, and as a result around 15,000 (including those in shelters) have been helped. That is a phenomenal national effort. I am pleased the Government has now followed this up by committing to keeping those who have moved off the streets and into accommodation, in place.
To help achieve this, the Government has announced 6,000 new supported homes for those helped off the street during the pandemic through the Next Steps Accommodation Programme. Critically homelessness isn’t just about accommodation, and the revenue funding put forward as part of this new £433million package will go towards specialist support staff working in these new homes addressing issues such as physical health, mental health, and addiction.
I am encouraged by these initial steps, but we have to think bolder and go further if we want to make the most of this opportunity, and ultimately achieve our goal of designing out homelessness.
First we must recognise the economic impact of Coronavirus and the effect this is going to have on homelessness. With financial hardship setting in, some people will lose their jobs or see their income greatly reduced, and undue pressure will be placed on relationships. The consequence of this will be households falling into arrears, unable to pay rent and bills, and therefore spikes in homelessness will occur in the coming months and years. This is not just about those at risk of rough sleeping. We must focus on preventing the risk to children and families, young people, and older adults who may be in precarious housing situations. Reports of domestic abuse have risen exponentially during periods of lockdown and safe housing for those affected must be a priority.
On behalf of the WMCA Homelessness Task Force I have lobbied the Government’s new Rough Sleeping and Housing Minister Kelly Tolhurst MP, outlining our concerns and what we think needs to be done to counteract this potential situation - as well as prepare for the future.
First we must think about how we prevent those individuals previously rough sleeping from returning back onto the streets, and how we support them to move into permanent accommodation, particularly those who have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’. Our suggestion is to give a period of 12 months ‘grace’ to those with No Recourse to Public Funds who have been accommodated as part of the Covid-19 response. Our pioneering Housing First scheme, which has already helped house close to 300 individuals, could also contribute to this. Once that is done, we then need to look at how this group moves into work or achieves resolution of their status.
Another suggestion to help in the longer term is the introduction of a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) + scheme. This is an innovative idea developed by us here in the West Midlands as a way of opening up more private rented stock for those vulnerable people looking for a home. We want to trial the use of a higher rate of LHA, so better properties, and perhaps more importantly better landlords, become available to those vulnerable people looking to move into secure, private accommodation.
We welcome government’s commitment that no one will lose their home as a result of Covid-19, and now need to see a recognition of the immense financial pressure that some are under as a result of a sudden change in circumstances – whether renting or paying a mortgage. Our experience is that temporary help from the welfare system is much more effective than late spend. The eviction ban has now been lifted and if we are to ultimately prevent households from being evicted, we need Government to invest in a temporary Rent Support Scheme for those who have accrued arrears during the Covid-19 lock down. This would be aimed at households who have either lost jobs or been furloughed on low incomes.
Every region will have its own suggestions, and ultimately there is a whole host of measures the Government can introduce to seize on the opportunity created by Coronavirus. It has made a determined start, but must go further if we are to grasp this unprecedented opportunity to end rough sleeping, avoid a return to streets, and design out homelessness.