Women and Homelessness

The last Labour Government made the reduction in homelessness a key priority.  

Thousands of families were languishing, sometimes for years in unsuitable bed & breakfast accommodation, and rough sleeping had reached unprecedented levels by the turn of the century.

Local authorities were set targets of halving the number of households in temporary accommodation by 2010 and to end rough sleeping.  The use of bed & breakfast and accommodation with shared bathrooms & kitchens was outlawed for households with dependent children or pregnant women, except in an emergency, for a maximum of 6 weeks.

By the time Labour lost the 2010 election these targets had largely been achieved.  Rough sleeping had been all but eliminated with the growth of the housing support sector under the Supporting People programme established in 2003,  designed to assist with the prevention of homelessness and enabling people to achieve and sustain independent living in the community.  The use of B&B-type accommodation for families had been all but eliminated except on an emergency basis and numbers in temporary accommodation halved.  Local authorities in areas of high housing need leased private sector housing for use as temporary accommodation, and made use of rent deposit schemes to enable homeless households to access the private rented sector because of the shortage of social housing.

The costs of housing benefit rose exponentially from the middle of the first decade of the 21st century as Local Housing Allowance rates kept pace with private sector rent increases.  This represented a massive shift of public subsidy from the supply of social & affordable housing to demand-side subsidy with private landlords in particular benefiting from unregulated rents and commensurate increases in housing benefits to their tenants.

As a result the Labour government capped LHA increases in 2010.  This cap fed through to the subsidy paid to housing authorities for temporary accommodation leased in the private sector, meaning any shortfall had to be made up from the local authorities’ own budgets because homeless households could not be asked to pay unaffordable rents; whereas previously this was largely met through housing benefit subsidy paid by government.

The election of the Con-Dem coalition government from 2010 and the imposition of austerity heralded a financial crisis in homelessness services in local government and the voluntary sector, beginning with a cut and then freezing of local housing allowance and temporary accommodation subsidy in 2011.  This meant that as private landlords sought to increase rents, this would not be matched in benefit payments for private tenants.  

This was compounded in September 2013 when the government implemented an overall benefit cap for non-working households – at £350 per week for a single person and £500 per week for a couple or family with dependent children.  This meant for a non-working family with two or more children there was no private sector accommodation anywhere in the country that was affordable – and for non-working families with four or more children not even council tenancies were affordable.  This meant those local authorities, primarily in London, that were heavily reliant on the private rented sector for its temporary accommodation supply would have to make up the shortfall – in London this cost is estimated to exceed £100million – a subsidy direct from the Council tax payer to private landlords.

From the middle of the decade local authorities became aware of the growth of Houses in Multiple Occupation – formerly family-sized homes being converted into bedsits or let as shared houses in order to maximise rent incomes.  In areas of high housing need this added to the pressure on local authorities to secure suitable accommodation for homeless families.   

There is statutory licencing of HMOs – but many unscrupulous landlords did not declare conversions – and it became increasingly common to find statutory overcrowding of properties more than 80 years after legislation establishing space standards was passed in the 1936 Housing Act, including many families with children being forced to share properties with one or more household.

Local authorities also increasingly used their powers to introduce licencing of private rented accommodation in an effort to drive up standards in the sector – which was fine for responsible landlords – but still failed to provide adequate protection for tenants of the modern Rachmans who continue to evade regulation, and of course there is still no regulation of rents, which was abolished under the Thatcher Government in the 1980s.

After 2012 the loss of Assured Short-hold tenancy became the principal cause of homelessness as rents became unaffordable for low-paid and unemployed private tenants.  Prior to this family exclusions and relationship breakdowns were the main cause of homelessness.  Despite no increase in costs for landlords because of low interest rates, they continued to demand annual rent increases, even at the expense of having to take possession proceedings, evict and then find new tenants who could afford to pay often extortionate rents.

The following chart shows the extent to which homelessness has increased since the last full year of a Labour Government. This shows the number of homeless applications accepted in the final quarter (October-December) in 2009 and then from 2015-2019, more than a 3-fold increase over the 10-year period.

Over the same period the number of households in temporary accommodation increased by 42% from 51,000 to 78,500.  Given the caps on Temporary Accommodation subsidy, the additional cost of subsidising this accommodation fell on local authorities which, following the increase in households accommodated, represented a huge cost-shunting exercise from central to local government.  

The largest demographic of homeless households for whom local authorities have a statutory duty to assist is single women with dependent children or pregnant.  The second largest group is couples with dependent children or a pregnant woman.  This reflects the legal definition of ‘priority need’ which excludes the majority of single people and childless couples.

Men constitute the largest group of single homeless households.  

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2018 (HRA) placed increased duties on local authorities to provide assistance with accommodation for non-priority homeless households.  Rough sleeping numbers in England are established by an annual count across all local authorities and only ever provide a snapshot.  Nevertheless numbers increased from 1768 in 2010 to 4266 in 2019 (from a high of 4751 in 2017 just before the implementation of the HRA).

The following table gives a breakdown of households in temporary accommodation by family type and clearly illustrates the extent to which women are disproportionately affected by homelessness.    Single mothers and single women account for half the total number of households in temporary accommodation with 72% of all households in TA including an adult woman against 37% containing a man.

The HRA permitted local authorities to end the homelessness duty with an offer of a private sector assured short-hold tenancy of at least 12 months, with or without the agreement of the applicant.   This solution means that homeless households become condemned to a revolving door of homelessness with increasingly extended periods in temporary accommodation because they do not have access to secure or long-term tenancies.

While local authorities were picking up an increasingly expensive tab for subsidising temporary accommodation the ring-fence was taken off the Supporting People grant which was used to fund supported housing services (from sheltered housing for the elderly to homeless hostels and refuges for women fleeing domestic violence).

This grant was absorbed into the general funds of local authorities large proportions of which were promptly diverted to statutory areas such as education and social care at the expense of supported housing services.

The number of women’s refuges has been cut from 296 in 2010 to 276 in 2017, although in that period the number of beds available increased from 3467 to 3798 reflecting the move to larger refuges.  There are no recent statistics on the number of refuge spaces available although anecdotal evidence indicates the sector is struggling to maintain services.

Around 10% of beds in refuges are filled with local authority referrals – the vast majority are accessed by women directly or through other agencies such as the police and health care services.

Local authority spending on refuge services was cut by £7million from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017 – of course the real-terms cut is much higher, and one in six refuges closed over the same period.  10,000 referrals a year are rejected because of the lack of provision – representing around 60% of all referrals.

The HRA provided new guidance for local authorities on people homeless as a result of violence – the vast majority being women fleeing domestic violence.  As a result of which there has been a 380% increase in the number of homeless applications due to domestic violence being accepted as in priority need as the following chart shows.

This reflects not so much an increase in homelessness due to domestic violence but an acceptance of statutory duty primarily due to an inability by local authorities either to prevent homelessness arising (for instance by action taken against the perpetrator to safely exclude them from the home) or by securing suitable alternative accommodation before homelessness occurs.  

The effectiveness of the last Labour Government’s strategy to cease the use of B&B and shared accommodation for families with children is in stark contrast to the situation today.

By the end of 2009 just 380 homeless households with children were accommodated in B&B in England, 120 of which had exceeded the statutory maximum period of six weeks; by the end of 2019 this had increased to 1900 households with 530 exceeding the six week period.  This type of accommodation is completely unsuitable for families with children and represents untold misery for thousands of children and their stressed parents, the vast majority of whom are single mums.

Of the 78,500 in temporary accommodation at the end of 2019, nearly 59,000 were households from London – over 24,000 were placed in accommodation out of their home borough, making access to schools and family support more difficult, and sometimes disrupting access to employment.  This situation was forced on London Boroughs because of the lack of access to self-contained accommodation and has compounded an already wretched situation resulting in increased isolation and devastating consequences for children’s education and the overall well-being and mental health of thousands of families.

It is worth noting that around 40% of all council homes sold under the right to buy are now owned by private, buy-to-let landlords.  In London around half of all families in temporary accommodation are in ex-Council properties – at 3x the rent the Council would have charged, subsidised by our income tax and Council Tax.

It’s time for a radical re-think of housing policy so that homes stop being seen as a source of private profit, and become, once again, a social asset for the benefit of current and future generations.

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