Welfare provision and homelessness
Often when a person thinks of homelessness they automatically conjure up an image in their mind of a person living on the streets, sleeping rough in a shop doorway or begging outside of a tube station (Donnellan, 1991). But being homeless is much more than a person having a roof over their head (Herron, 1997). According to Herron being homeless is about the unquantifiable day to day struggle that over three million people face with nowhere to call a home.
They may not be living on the streets, but they are homeless. Homelessness means more than sleeping rough. Homelessness is about the abysmal housing conditions, insecurities and inequalities these people face. Being homeless is the ultimate indication of a person’s powerlessness in society. A home is not just a physical structure with a price tag. A home is where a person makes their life, feels safe, secure and is able to fully participate in society.
Britain is the fourth richest country in the world (Shelter, 2006) and yet millions of people in Britain wake up every day in housing which is run down, over crowded and dangerous. There are many others that have lost their homes altogether. How can it be that in such an affluent nation, people are being uprooted again and again in a vain wait for social housing? Young families with babies and young children are forced to share hostel bathrooms with drug users and sick children have no option but to sleep on blow up beds on floors if they are lucky.
In our society there is a wide spread belief that it is the fault of the individual as to why a person becomes homeless. According to this belief homelessness is the result of an individuals own incompetence, bad luck and irresponsibility’s. However, sudden financial crises, relationship breakdowns and abuse are the most popular explanations of why a person can lose their home. It is the victims behaviour that often becomes the centre of focus, not the underlying factor or factors; the lack of a home.
There are also others in our society that believe homelessness is not the result of an individual’s personal incompetence and behaviour, but homelessness is the result of failed government policies. Homeless people face many inequalities to welfare provision in relation to access of housing, health, employment, education and social inclusion. These inequalities are present in most aspects of a homeless persons’ life. This paper shall be discussing the relationship between the inequalities to welfare provisions that millions of homeless people face in relation to housing, and health.
According to Sampson (2005) Britain has undergone huge social changes since the late sixties. More relationships are breaking down than ever before, people are now living longer and the structure within our society has also changed, with people deciding against marriage, women choosing careers and to be independent rather than settling down at an early age and being a wife and mother. As a result more and more people are now living in one or two person households.
These changes have an enormous impact on housing and the homeless, as more homes are needed to accommodate these changes. There are three types of housing tenure available in Britain these are owner-occupier, social housing and private rented accommodation. As homeless people usually cannot afford to buy a house most are dependant on rented accommodation, either social housing or private rented.
Social housing is rented accommodation that is provided by local authorities. The total amount of social housing has constantly dwindled since the Conservative government established the ‘Right to Buy scheme’ that they formed as part of the 1980 Housing Act. Under this scheme, tenants of social housing are eligible to buy their property with discounts of up to fifty percent depending on how long they have lived in the property (Young, 2000). As a result in the period 1979 to 1995 the stock of social rented housing in Britain declined by more than a quarter (Ellison, 1998). In 2005 there were 600,000 fewer social homes for rent than in 1997 (Crisis, 2005).
Access to housing is a huge inequality that homeless people face with welfare provisions. Access to housing in relation to both the quantity of affordable housing and also the quality of housing available. In 2005 the British Government introduced a strategy document called; Sustainable Communities: Homes for All. In this document the government states that they are committed to tackling existing shortages of social housing by increasing their annual supply of new social homes by fifty percent and that they intend to bring empty dwellings back into use (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2005).
On new social homes, the government plans to deliver an extra 10,000 social rented homes by the year 2008. However Barker conducted a review of housing supply in 2004 and estimated that the number of new social homes in England needs to increase from around 30,000 a year to 50,000 a year and even then this increase would only meet newly arising needs rather than past shortages. Although the Government does recognise the need for more social housing the numbers of homes they are planning to increase is not enough to provide adequate housing for homeless people.
In most cases social housing is only accessible to those who are deemed to be in ‘priority of need’ under the housing legislation (Homeless pages, 2005). Households are classified as in ‘priority of need’ either if they have dependant children or if they are classified as vulnerable adults (Crisis, 2006). If an individual does not have a dependant child and is not deemed to be vulnerable, then they are classified as not in priority need, therefore they are only entitled to advice and support, not housing. According to Crisis, in practice this means that around a third of households officially recognised as homeless are not entitled to accommodation. However it can be argued than anybody that is officially recognised as homeless fits the criteria of being ‘vulnerable’.
For those not deemed as in priority of need for housing, private rented accommodation is an alternative for them. However the private rented sector has an appalling record in almost every aspect of housing management (Herron, 1997). According to the governments English House Condition survey forty two percent of private rented homes are in poor condition compared to 12.8 percent of owner occupied homes and 10.6 percent of social housing.
Because landlords are renting their properties as a means of income many feel re-investing in the property and keeping up with adequate maintenance will reduce their income therefore they do not keep up with any basic or essential maintenance that is needed. Those who live in private rented accommodation have often stated that neglect; harassment and rent rises were not uncommon, combined with the landlord’s failure to respond to tenants’ requests for essential maintenance of their properties. Forty percent of all fatal accidents happen in the home (Lowry, 1991)) with almost half of all accidents to children associated with architectural features in and around the home, households in disadvantaged circumstances are more likely to be the worst affected by such accidents.
Another major barrier that many homeless people face within the private rented sector is the necessity for a cash deposit and a month’s rent in advance. Many homeless people are unemployed because of the fact they have not got a home (Homeless pages, 2004). When a homeless person applies for a job vacancy, quite often a correspondence address if needed. As many homeless people do not have a correspondence address this is the first barrier many of them face. Some homeless people may have a friend or relatives’ address they can use, however even then any letters may not be passed on to them.
There is also the social stigma that is attached to a homeless person that may deter any employer employing a homeless person. They may believe a homeless person is ‘untrustworthy’, ‘work shy’ and ‘more trouble than they are worth’ therefore many would choose not to employ a homeless person. The first Housing Benefit payment is always paid in arrears (Crisis, 2006), it is almost impossible for a homeless person to find a months rent plus a cash deposit to secure a rented property. A person is only eligible to claim housing benefit once they are already in a privately rented house, therefore this is a vicious cycle for many homeless people.
They need to be accommodated to make them eligible for housing benefit, yet they also need the housing benefit to accommodate them. Many people on low incomes are also disadvantaged to the access of good quality privately rented accommodation by the fact that many landlords are unwilling to let their property to people on housing benefit (Burrows, 1997). In a survey of private landlords in Britain in 1995, Crook et al found that most landlords judged prospective tenants by their economic status. In explaining their reasons for this, some landlords stated the fact that they considered housing benefit claimants to be ‘undesirable’ in some way as there still is a lot of stigma attached to people who claim benefits and housing benefits in particular.
However for the majority of landlord’s their decision of not to take people on housing benefits rested with difficulties within the benefits system itself. The length of time taken to process the application and delayed payments were the most likely reasons many landlords gave. Local Authorities are statutorily bound to process a claim within two weeks or receiving the claim, however they do state that delays do occur. As in all aspects of everyday life delays do occur, but the question needs to be raised that in such a system as the welfare state are such delays in housing acceptable when these delays are preventing a person from accessing a home or even losing their home..
There are also cases where residents have been evicted from their homes because of delays in housing benefits (BBC1, 2006). Delays within the benefits system can be prevented. More commitment is needed within local authorities to ensure that any housing benefit applications are processed as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, it could be argued that landlords are just using the benefits system as an excuse not to let their properties to people on housing benefits but in fact it is the social stigma attached to the benefits that is preventing them from letting their properties to the homeless.