‘Ask the Expert’: How can we tackle the homelessness crisis?

In our latest ESRC-sponsored Ask the Expert seminar, the SMF co-hosted a one-off panel discussion with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and Sense about Science on the rapidly changing policy landscape of homelessness prevention.

Chaired by SMF director James Kirkup, panellists included: Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick (Heriot-Watt University) and Dr Peter Mackie (Cardiff University) both representing the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE); Matt Downie, policy director at Crisis; and Fiona Darby, deputy director for homelessness policy and local delivery at the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government. The event took place as part of the Evidence Week initiative held in UK Parliament.

The Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA), introduced in April 2018, ushered in important new prevention-focussed duties which replicated those already in place in Wales. Dr Mackie discussed the key successes of this new approach that have been seen in Wales:

  • Homeless prevention services are now understood as a universal and enforceable right. The UK is one of only two countries in the world that guarantee this entitlement. Incentivises the rehabilitation and continued support of people leaving the prison system, psychiatric care etc.
  • Intervention is happening much earlier. Local authorities are obliged to take reasonable steps to prevent homelessness and the data shows far more people are being helped earlier than was the case under the old policy framework.
  • Local authorities must now respond to the individual wants and needs of each person. Addresses the issues involved in the old process, which was linear and overly rigid. The result is fewer people remain homeless at the end of the process.

Prof Fitzpatrick began by acknowledging the many benefits of the new system, but noted that the emphasis on enforceable rights must not create an adversarial culture of defensive practices. The system should remain outcomes and not process orientated. She then turned to what an ideal homelessness policy framework might look like:

  • Robust, universal prevention duties should be set out in legislation with a variety of clearly defined processes that local authorities must consider. Though these exist in England and Wales, much more must be done to specify how they should be met. Crucially, they should extend upstream beyond housing authorities to related public bodies such as health, education and prison authorities.
  • England and Wales should follow Scotland’s lead and abolish the priority needs test. Almost all homeless people have been entitled to permanent rehousing since 2012.
  • The intentionality test in its current form should be abolished. It tends to punish vulnerable groups – particularly those with complex needs and young homeless people with little experience of the system. Those attempting to manipulate the system should be denied additional social housing preferences rather than basic entitlements.
  • The local connection test should be re-imagined. Local authorities with high levels of homelessness could be compensated by the local authorities where homeless people originally come from, helping to alleviate the financial burden and ensure people get the help they need.

Matt Downie placed emphasis on the need to house people first before addressing issues of support, an evidence based approach that homeless people have long advocated. For its part, the Government remains committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it by 2027. But it recognises that the challenge ahead is immense both in scale and complexity. Any genuine solution requires a holistic, cross-departmental approach drawing on the expertise of the third sector which emphasises prevention, early intervention and recovery. Two areas of focus in the near future are helping local authorities reduce the number of households in temporary accommodation and the provision of a £30 million fund to help local authorities reduce rough sleeping before winter.


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