UK: Homelessness Rise Of 14% ‘Just Tip Of The Iceberg’

Homelessness rise of 14% ‘just tip of iceberg’ (Guardian, Mar 8, 2012):

Charities say figure fails to capture huge numbers who are living with friends, in hostels or on streets

Charities have warned that official figures showing a 14% rise in people classed as homeless are just the “tip of the iceberg”, because they fail to capture huge numbers who have been displaced from their home and are living with friends, in hostels or on the streets.

The latest homelessness figures also indicated local authorities are housing homeless families in bed-and-breakfast hotels because of a chronic shortage of suitable private temporary accommodation, a discredited practice that was almost eradicated by the Labour government.

The latest government figures, published on Thursday, showed 48,510 applications for homelessness assistance were approved by councils in England in 2011, up from 42,390 in the previous year, the biggest increase for nine years.

Campaigners warned that the problem would worsen in the coming months as the impact of housing benefit cuts took effect, forcing tens of thousands of families and vulnerable young people out of private rented homes.

There was a 44% increase in households who were accepted as homeless after having their homes repossessed, and a 39% year-on-year increase in the numbers of people seeking help from the council after having their short-term tenancy terminated.

The figures come days after official statistics showed the number of rough sleepers in England had gone up by a fifth.

“These figures are a shocking reminder of the divide between the housing haves and have nots in this country,” said Campbell Robb, chief executive of Shelter.

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis, said: “Our worst fears are coming to pass. We face a perfect storm of economic downturn, rising joblessness and soaring demand for limited affordable housing combined with government policy to cut housing benefit plus local cuts to homelessness services.”

The shadow housing minister, Jack Dromey, said: “The government’s economic policies are failing, leading to rising unemployment, increases in fuel bills and the biggest squeeze on family incomes in a generation.

“Combined with the government’s reckless changes to benefits, it was inevitable that homelessness would rise and that it will continue to rise.”

Grant Shapps, the housing minister, blamed the previous government for the rise, claiming the figures underlined “how the debt-laden economy we inherited is leaving a legacy of hard-up households across the country”.

Centrepoint said although the figures showed the number of homeless young people was on the rise – 17,000 16- to 24-year-olds were classed by councils as homeless in 2011, up from 15,500 the previous year – the statistics failed to capture the scale of the problem. The charity said its research estimated that the number of young people using hostels or sleeping rough could be nearer 60,000, a figure over three times the official figure.

Councils are only obliged to find temporary accommodation for three main groups of young people who present as homeless: all 16- and 17-year-olds, someone leaving local authority care aged 18-20, and young people with dependent children. Many other homeless youngsters fall through the net, said Centrepoint.

Its chief executive, Seyi Obakin, said: “These figures highlight the bleak outlook for the 80,000 young people who find themselves rough sleeping, sofa surfing and seeking support from charities. With more than a million young people unemployed and an increasing shortage of affordable housing, the outlook is set to get worse.

“The bottom line is that this country desperately needs more homes and more support for young people to help them find a job and succeed in independent living.

“In the meantime, we want to see government and local authorities taking steps to make the private rented sector more accessible for young people.”

Charities are anticipating a further increase in homelessness among younger people this year as a result of housing benefit changes that cap the amount of housing benefit paid to individuals under the age of 35 who live on their own in private rented accommodation.

The number of families put up by councils in emergency bed-and- breakfast accommodation has increased by over a third, signalling that local authorities are struggling to find suitable and affordable temporary housing for homeless families. The figures suggest fewer families are being put up in private rented accommodation, possibly reflecting a desire among landlords.

Official guidance for local authorities says bed and breakfast temporary accommodation should be avoided “wherever possible”. Lack of privacy, and amenities such as cooking and laundry means it is “not suitable” for families with children or pregnant women “unless there is no alternative accommodation available and then only for a maximum of six weeks.”

Kensington and Chelsea council in central London estimated last year that 1,000 households presented to the council as homeless as a result of the housing benefit changes, effectively doubling the number of households for whom it would have to provide expensive temporary accommodation. The council warned that these families would have to be relocated in homes outside London.

Homeless Link, which represents over 400 homelessness organisations across the UK, said a lack of suitable and affordable private rented accommodation meant homeless people were increasingly stuck in hostels because there was nowhere suitable to move them on to.

Interim chief executive Matt Harrison said: “We believe a lack of affordable accommodation, rent inflation and housing benefit restrictions are fuelling homelessness and making it more difficult to help people once they become homeless.”

Rent rise and benefits cap

Sandra Munoz got her eviction letter the week she got her notice from Wandsworth council saying her housing benefits would be capped. Munoz, 38, a single mother, had lived in the ex-council flat in Battersea with her son for two years, paying a weekly private rent of £250, when she was told she’d have to move last April.

The landlord wanted an extra £100 a week rent and with the housing benefit cuts she could not meet that. She got two months to vacate and her first port of call was the council. “They said they couldn’t help me because I still had two months to find accommodation. I couldn’t find anything on [housing] benefits in Wandsworth and anything below the cap. [Landlords] didn’t want to accept people on benefits.” Even after the deadline passed the council said her case wasn’t an emergency; she would have to wait until her landlord forcibly evicted her and her five-year-old son before they got re-housing assistance, she said.

“Before the council accepts they have a duty to help you, they wait until you’re really on the street basically.”

It was the week before Christmas when Munoz, who has lived in the UK for 14 years both as a full-time worker and a student and volunteer, attended her eviction case at court. Unable to pay the rent she inevitably lost and a few weeks ago the bailiffs were ready to move.

“[The council] wanted me to come to the office just after the bailiffs came. I said look, the bailiffs are coming at eight o’clock in the morning, your offices are opening at nine. What am I supposed to do with my child and furniture?”

The council finally opted to re-house her the night before eviction. She now lives in a tiny flat in a council-run Balham hostel.

The self-contained flat has just a room for her and her child and a sparsely furnished kitchenette without even a fridge.

She said it was worse for bigger families. “They are almost 100 families here. I’ve met some people here and they have three children and they are still living in the one bedroom.”

Munoz said the housing figures showing a 14% rise in homelessness must only represent those who were the most desperate, like herself, who had no family or friends to reply on. “You have to go through so much pain to get here, that many people [looking for emergency accommodation] must just give up.”

And what will she do now? “The council told me I’ll have to stay here for six to eight months before I can move to permanent accommodation. Obviously I would love to go back to my community in Battersea where my child grew up … but they say, you can not decide, you only have one choice.”

Wandsworth council said: “Throughout this whole process we have supported Ms Munoz we intervened on her behalf with her landlord to ascertain his intentions. And as it became clear that she could no longer reside in that property we found her somewhere else to live and ensured that she and her son had a roof over their heads.”

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