Homelessness is an individual difficulty, not a social problem
In Britain, the majority of housing has been provided by the private sector and state intervention has both regulated and stimulated the private market (Alcock, 1996:32). At the turn of the last century, about 90% of housing was provided by private landlords with the remainder being owned by the occupiers. However, this had reduced to around 15% by the 1970’s. Half of the property was owner occupied and a third provided by local authorities, but in the 1990’s, owner occupation rose further to two-thirds, the private sector rentals decreased to ten per-cent and local authority rentals were less than a quarter (ibid).
Part of the reason for the decline in privately rented property is demolition due to unfitness as part of ‘slum clearances’. Other reasons include the building of public rented property and the construction of houses for sale. Owner occupation was arguably one of the most significant features of housing development in the twentieth century (ibid). The opportunity for one to purchase ones own home through a mortgage paid over a staggered period has made owner occupation more accessible.
Since the 1950’s, it has also been supported by governments with indirect tax subsidies exempting owner occupiers from income tax on the money that they used to repay the interest on their mortgage debts. Up until the 1980’s, the government had also supported the development of public rented property, but during the 1960’s most new build property was in the form of flats which became unpopular with residents and policy analysts alike and created a negative image of public rented housing in the last quarter of the century, many were actually demolished in the 1980’s less than twenty years after being built (ibid).
The unpopularity of public housing was accentuated by the Conservative government of the 1980’s with policies designed to increase the rents of rented property and to encourage existing council tenants to buy their homes under the ‘right to buy’ scheme. Public subsidies for rent were transferred to Housing Associations which became major suppliers of public housing. Housing Benefit payments have replaced direct subsidies for people who are unable to afford all or part of their rent, but as these direct subsidies have been removed, rents have risen, meaning that a reliance on housing benefit has increased.
Most council tenants are also now claiming Housing Benefit (ibid:35). The current legislative framework for homelessness in Britain was originally established by the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Act 2002. The 1977 Act established a statutory obligation for local authorities to accommodate ‘vulnerable’ homeless people. Such groups included pregnant women, children, women at risk of violence and the elderly. Additional vulnerable groups were non specific and as result, open to interpretation by individual councils.
This meant that groups such as care-leavers, ex-offenders and people with serious and often long term mental illnesses, were sometimes helped by local authorities but often not. The 1977 Act also included a clause which required people to establish a ‘local connection’ before they could expect to be helped by housing departments and they had to prove that they were not ‘intentionally homeless’. The policy although intended to be helpful was vague and non-inclusive and did not address all of the problems it intended to remedy.
The 1996 Act amended the broad framework of the 1977 Act, and brought in three changes. Firstly, the ‘recognised’ homeless were offered help for a minimum, of twelve months and reviewed before two years had elapsed. Secondly, the duty of local authorities to provide accommodation to those in priority need could be halted if the local authority was satisfied that alternative accommodation could be found in the area which would usually be in the private sector.
The third change was that secure accommodation would only be offered to those on the council’s waiting lists which do not usually include homeless people (Pierson and Thomas, 2002:221). The changes increased the difficulties faced by homeless people as professionals and other people working with them sought to define and establish vulnerability (ibid). People who had been regarded as ‘queue jumpers’ such as teenage pregnant women, were no longer given priority over people who were considered more ‘worthy’ (ibid). Homelessness grew in the 1980’s and peaked at 144,780 in 1991.
By 1995, it had fallen to 120,810 (Stewart, 2002 cited in Davies, 2002:157) This was one year before the current Housing Act 1996 came into force and this pattern tends to reflect the points made earlier that less council housing was available during the 1980’s because of the ‘right to buy’ scheme, demolition of unfit and unpopular properties. However the fall in homelessness between 1991 and 1995 can be misleading due to the number of people on council housing waiting lists who were not classified as homeless under the legislation.
Also, because the homelessness legislation was under review in the 1990’s and the rights of even priority groups to permanent housing provision was reduced. Under the Housing Act 1996, councils had a duty to house priority need homeless households in temporary accommodation for a period of two years. This can be from the local authorities own stock, short term housing from registered social landlords, private landlords, bed and breakfast accommodation or hostels.
People in these groups are then included in national homelessness statistics, but this practice is undoubtedly oppressive and reform was needed which came in the form of the Homelessness Act 2002. The Homelessness Act 2002 is the most recent addition to homelessness legislation and it changes the way in which homelessness is tackled in Britain. “Over time it should enable homelessness services to move from short term crisis management towards a long-term strategy based on early intervention and support to help people keep their homes. ” (Shelter, The Homelessness Act in Brief, 2003:1) There are four main aims of the act:
It requires local authorities to take a multi-agency approach to the prevention of homelessness and the rehousing of homeless households It should ensure that everyone treated as unintentionally homeless and in priority need is provided with suitable accommodation until they get a settled home. Housing Authorities should have greater flexibility to assist non-priority households, by being able to secure accommodation where there is scope to do so and a strengthened duty to provide advice and assistance. This is particularly aimed at areas of low demand and where local authorities have excess housing stock.
To create sustainable communities by making lettings policies more ‘user friendly’ and offering greater choice. Social exclusion is to be tackled and local authorities are to make better use of national housing stock. The act extends provision to 16-17 year olds, those leaving institutions and it requires councils to produce preventative strategies for homelessness and review these initially after twelve months and every five years thereafter. Social services will also have to give reasonable assistance and work in partnership with local housing authorities.
The limitation to provide temporary accommodation for two years under the 1996 act has been repealed and replaced with a duty to provide unlimited assistance until a defined event such as an offer of a secure tenancy brings it to an end, and the clause that stated that local authorities could discharge their responsibility by asserting that suitable accommodation was available in the area has also been removed, meaning that local authorities must now face up to the fact that they have a duty to assist people who are homeless whether they are in priority need or not.
Priority need categories have been widened to include people who are vulnerable as a result of violence or threatened violence, and people who are vulnerable as a result of a prison, armed forces or care background. However, if the local authority decides that it does not have a duty to house a homeless household, perhaps because they are considered ‘intentionally homeless’ social services and the housing department must co-operate in order to assist them.
Housing authorities are no longer required to maintain a housing register which effectively means there is no queue to ‘jump’ anymore and local authorities must set out eligibility criteria that a person must meet to be considered for housing. This will enable the government to move towards its “choice-based” lettings schemes. A “right to apply” has been introduced for housing that requires the local authority to provide advice and information to enable people to make an application. Finally, the reforms require local authorities to have an allocations scheme and to publish a statement describing how choice will be applied.
It lists the groups to whom “reasonable preference” will be given. These include homeless people, homeless people in temporary accommodation, people in insanitary, overcrowded or otherwise unsatisfactory conditions, people who need to move on medical or welfare grounds, and those who would suffer hardship unless they are moved to a particular locality. In addition to this allocation policy, local authorities are required to provide free advice and information to those who wish to make an application and assistance to people who might have difficulty in doing so, such as those who have difficulty reading and writing.
Every authority is required to consider every application. The new act is a welcome addition to legislation and represents a significant achievement for organizations and individuals who have campaigned for increased protection and support for homeless people and those who have called upon local authorities to take a more strategic response to homelessness. However, too few houses are being built at present. Dean (2002:1) reports that 53,000 houses were sold in 2001 under the right to buy scheme, only 18,000 new builds have been completed and each one costs around i??
50,000. The average council house is sold for around i?? 28,000 including discounts. The problems of ‘squalor’ were intended to be tackled quickly and efficiently with the provision of new homes under Beveridges scheme, but house building alone cannot rid society of all of the problems associated with poverty, crime, addiction and low income. Although conditions in Britain are not what they were before the introduction of the ‘welfare state’ in 1945 the problems that people face have changed meaning that the original plans do not fit into todays society.
Whilst we may see a hopeful reduction in the number of people who present themselves as homeless and who are sleeping on the streets, more must be done to increase the incomes of those most at risk and to provide more property that is affordable and acceptable to live in. Although councils now have powers to utilise surplus housing stock, much of this stock is in disrepair and in areas which are not desirable because of crime, hence the reason they are surplus!
This in effect could create ghetto’s of previously homeless people, but as these areas are usually undesirable anyway, does this mean that some of the problems that made them homeless in the first place such as violence, the threat of violence or being a victim of another crime would still be present but in a different area? Strategies to improve housing stock, tackle ‘problem estates’ new build programmes and affordable housing would undoubtedly be more welcome.