We have a national crisis of homelessness that politicians must address.
Sky high housing costs, economic uncertainty and insecure tenancies are causing an increase in homelessness across the UK. Last year, almost 30,000 people made homeless applications to local authorities in an increase of more than 10% over the previous five years. During the same period, the number of homeless households in temporary accommodation increased by more than 20,000, or a 43% spike when compared to 2010.
These statistics highlight the difficulty in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society. While many local authorities are struggling with a lack of housing stock to accommodate rough sleepers, more difficult to resolve are the significant barriers faced by people in short-term housing accommodation trying to find jobs and secure, longer-term tenancies that will improve their future prospects.
Many rough sleepers suffer from multiple health conditions, such as mental health problems or drug misuse. They are more likely to have been the victims of violence or abuse, and have poor education outcomes or few transferable skills. Getting people off the streets is only the first step in a long and complex transition to secure an independent living, a transition that very few homeless people successfully complete.
The Government has taken encouraging steps to try and resolve this problem. They established the first cross-departmental working group on homelessness. Funding of £18.5 million was given to local councils to provide emergency accommodation. Additional investment is being made in training and support to try and create a more joined-up approach, so that homelessness teams in different local authorities can learn from each other. A £40 million capital funding programme for hostel refurbishment has begun.
In his final budget earlier this year, George Osborne announced a further £100 million to combat homelessness – including 2,000 accommodation places for rough sleepers and £10 million for homelessness prevention projects.
This is all welcome news, but the results of this will take years, if not decades, to come to fruition. More urgent is the need to improve the life chances and “throughput” of those already in the homeless system – reducing the length of time that people have to stay in emergency accommodation, and giving them the skills and confidence they need to go back out into the world and live independently.
As with most social problems, it is the charitable and voluntary sector that is leading the way on the most innovative solutions. Caritas Anchor House, which this column has consistently supported because of your author’s own experience of homelessness, is an award winning charity which has been pioneering a new approach focusing on improving outcomes through education, counselling and personal rehabilitation. The charity serves as a residential and life skills centre, supporting more than 220 single homeless adults each year and acts as a community hub in Canning Town, one of the most deprived parts of the country.
Although Anchor House provides a bed and roof over the heads of its residents, the real difference is made through its aspirations programme. This helps residents address all aspects of their life, including health and wellbeing, recreational and therapeutic activities, relationship guidance, teaching financial management, giving educational opportunities through volunteering and training, and providing back to work preparation. Caritas understands that the solution to resolving homelessness is not just providing a place to stay – it is about helping people take control of their own lives.
The outcomes have been impressive. Last year they helped 58 residents move onto independent living, and supported 36 into employment. They provided support to 12,000 people accessing their services. In the first quarter of 2016, 28% of Anchor House residents were in employment, double the average of 14% seen across the homeless sector. A study by Oxford Economics has suggested that for every £1 invested in Anchor House’s operations, they provide £3.98 in benefits to society – an almost 400% return on social investment.
It is this innovation and dynamism that will be key to helping those in immediate need, as well as reducing homelessness over the longer term. The Cabinet Office are now considering an application for funding for a new project called the Global NoticeBoard, a service that could provide a better return than investment in bricks and mortar by better matching supply and demand for accommodation, resources, mentoring, donations and expertise. The technology would support those going through the homeless system by enabling job hunting, searches for new accommodation, volunteering and time banking. It also allows the rest of us to donate time and items as well as money.
Caritas have put in a proposal for £2.5 million of funding and estimate that their approach could free up about 10% of 38,000 hostel beds around the country, allowing an extra 3,800 homeless people a year to be taken off the streets and supported back into independent living. Whereas George Osborne committed £100 million to provide 2,000 accommodation places, Global NoticeBoard could provide almost double that support at a fraction of the cost.
Global NoticeBoard is just one example of how innovation and technology are rapidly transforming the way in which the Government reaches out and supports those who are the hardest to help in society. As we await publication of their Life Chances strategy in the autumn, Ministers must ensure that they are utilising the best approaches to combat homelessness, moving away from the antiquated view of the housing crisis as merely a lack of new homes, and instead focusing on how we can transform employment, skills and training to allow people to fight disadvantage and build opportunities in life for themselves.
Caritas, put simply, is love in action, delivering life-changing opportunities for the most vulnerable in society. They deserve our support. Find out more at www.caritasanchorhouse.org.uk.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Universe of 18th August 2016