by Charlotte Murray, Director of Care, Health & Wellbeing, South Yorkshire Housing Association
The Government’s response to homelessness—particularly rough sleeping—when the first Covid-19 lockdown was announced was pretty amazing. For the first time, the Government showed leadership in supporting homeless people and there was unity amongst people affected by homelessness, homelessness groups, local authorities, and housing associations.
In one weekend in March, all rough sleepers were offered housing. No-one stopped to check immigration status, income levels or intentionality: everyone was offered a roof over their head. Hotels, student halls of residence, and other shared accommodation were made available. Some of it wasn’t ideal, but it was much better than the prospect of sleeping out, exposed to the pandemic.
Determination and sense of a common goal was maintained
In the months that followed, that determination and sense of a common goal was maintained. It took many forms. For example, civil servants began to shape programmes and new funding streams for permanent accommodation for homeless people, councils prioritised homelessness projects for nominations, and housing associations bent over backwards to provide a higher proportion of self-contained accommodation for these groups.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who said: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members.” The test, though, isn’t what can be achieved in a crisis. It’s whether we can sustain our determination to end homelessness once and for all.
Short-term or one-off initiatives won’t cut it
This was the objective of Crisis’s brilliant report, Everybody In (2018). The detail of its 250 pages means we need never ask ourselves again how we can end homelessness. The report pulled together in one place best practice from around the world; we now know how to do it. The report makes it clear that short-term or one-off initiatives won’t cut it. There are many different causes of homelessness: poverty, mental illness, the lack of social housing and a dysfunctional housing market. Initiatives have failed in the past because they adopt the ‘whack-a-mole’ approach, addressing an issue in one area for it to pop out somewhere else.
Reports and announcements in recent weeks demonstrate that we’re relapsing back to a disjointed approach. These include:
- the debate regarding the possible termination of the additional Universal Credit payments of £20 per week
- research by the New Economics Foundation warning that one third of the population will be living below the minimum socially acceptable standard of living by next Spring
- the significant weakening of the eviction ban.
It’s not all bad news though. There’s a clear Government commitment to provide access for rough sleepers to the vaccination programme. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has asked local authorities to ensure that homeless people can be protected from the virus and that they’re registered with GPs. Local authorities have been asked to reach out once again to people who have previously refused their support.
One in four lettings by social landlords made to statutorily homeless
Similarly, recent HouseMark data shows over a quarter of social housing landlords are prioritising lettings to homeless people. As a result, one in four lettings were made to households identified as statutorily homeless—equivalent to 9,000 households across the UK. The Next Steps Accommodation programme is increasing the number of homes and the support available to homeless people (for a maximum of two years, rather than a home for life but progress never the less).
At SYHA, we’re keeping our voids work and lettings open to ensure we can house the most in need. We’re strictly following our ‘no evictions into street homelessness’ policy and working closely with local authorities to increase support and accommodation.
It sometimes feels like we’re standing on a street corner with a megaphone shouting, “Is anybody there?” The leadership has gone. SYHA and the other associations in the Homes for Cathy Group will continue to work in line with our values and commitments and challenge ourselves to do more, but we do need leadership, urgency—and, importantly, a long-term, joined up strategy. The new Housing Minister, Eddie Hughes, reportedly brings with him a background in and “passion for” housing. Great. Right now, we need someone with the vision and steady determination to continue the momentum built up in 2020. We are ready and waiting.
South Yorkshire Housing Association is a founding member of the Homes for Cathy group and offers safe and secure spaces for homeless people and families to live in.