Sadly, homelessness is on the rise. In England alone, almost 58,000 households were classified as homeless in 2015/16 – a 6% rise on 2014/15, and over double the number for 2010/11.
There is a well-known charity, Crisis at Christmas, who help homeless people, particularly at Christmas time. The irony is, of course, that homelessness, like a pet, is not just for Christmas – for many it is their everyday life.
Christmas time prompts many of us to give more to charities, and consider the plight of the homeless. Some people even provide practical support by inviting a homeless person to lunch on Christmas day. However, as a society, we need to develop a more strategic and sustainable approach in order to solve the longer term issue of homelessness.
The majority of people who are homeless are vulnerable people often with multiple social and/or health problems. Many are victims of some type of domestic violence or unfortunate and traumatic incident and, as a result, suffer from drug or alcohol abuse and often mental health issues.
Whilst cross-sector interventions by different agencies are often needed to help with the various complex issues affecting the homeless, identifying and providing permanent, suitable housing is one of the most critical steps towards the longer term solution.
Whilst Local Authorities do have a duty of care, with the increasing burden to provide more and more mandated public services, yet not raise council taxes too much during a time of prolonged, economic uncertainty, there is lack of accommodation within the public sector to house the homeless.
We, therefore, need to take a practical and pragmatic approach and make housing the homeless more attractive to the private sector.
The previous system that was in place did much to help the vulnerable find accommodation within the private market. Eligible people had their housing benefit paid directly to their landlords in lieu of rent, by-passing the bank accounts of the tenants. This provided assurance for both landlord and tenant. Sadly, this was stopped in 2014 by Iain Duncan Smith and the Department of Work and Pensions under David Cameron’s government.
The impact of this saw massive increases in rent arrears and evictions, leading to the recent sharp rise in homelessness.
The long term unintended consequence of this change in policy is that private landlords are no longer willing to rent to those on benefits. These are often people without the capacity to manage their own lives and finances effectively – something even the very capable among us struggle with from time to time. Consequently, they are also among that section of society more likely to be exploited financially (as well as physically) by less scrupulous individuals.
In Northern Ireland, the policy of paying either the tenant or the landlord directly still exists so why not reintroduce a modified version of the policy in the rest of the UK?
Private landlords could be paid rent directly for those individuals classified as especially vulnerable, helping to reduce the numbers of ‘at risk’ homeless, and provide assurance for the landlords. This would surely encourage more private landlords to release accommodation to a community excluded from somewhere decent to live since the unhelpful change of policy in 2014.
This would ultimately lead to a drop in homelessness and reduce what is for many not only a Crisis at Christmas, but a crisis every day.