To most people, the word ‘homeless’ conjures up an image of a bearded and bedraggled old man with a flea-bitten dog, huddled in a shop doorway. However, a large proportion of homeless people are not in fact sleeping rough; thousands of people in the UK are ‘statutory homeless’: living in temporary accommodation, sleeping on friend’s sofas, or squatting. While their plight may be largely invisible, it’s too serious and widespread to be ignored. Impact’s Lucy Hayes investigates the lives of people in Nottingham who have lived in fear of ending up on the street, and looks at the causes.
It’s not fashionable to say anything nice about Labour at the minute, but it is an uncontestable fact that the last government did a huge amount to cut street homelessness in the UK. It is down two-thirds since their accession in 1997. This is a figure to be proud of – but it does not mean that the problems underlying homelessness have disappeared. Street homelessness can be hard to measure, as people will often stay on the move or hidden from public view. There are also many homeless people who are not sleeping rough but are in great need of permanent housing. Adam Sampson, the CEO of Shelter, said, “The Government made a commitment to cut the numbers of homeless people sleeping rough… Despite progress, the problems faced by homeless people have not gone away.”
Laura* would have ended up on the streets had she not been taken into a women’s hostel after fleeing her home. She had been in a violently abusive relationship until her ex-partner was sent to prison. However, he had associates still in the area who made her life a living hell, repeatedly breaking into her property, harassing her in the street and finally attacking her in her own home. Although her ex-partner, the original perpetrator, had been imprisoned, it was clear that it was no longer safe for her to stay in the area. After fleeing her home the Council had to review whether she was intentionally homeless, and she was placed in hostel accommodation while this decision was reached. She was eventually placed in council accommodation in a different area and has been able to find work and begin rebuilding her life. For people like Laura, an accessible social housing stock is vital for both their happiness and well-being.
64,000 homeless households in England were living in temporary accommodation arranged by local authorities at the end of March 2009. Just over 49,000 of these households had dependent children. Temporary accommodation may be made available to people who have been illegally evicted, are fleeing domestic violence or are facing a multitude of other problems. It is impossible to know how many other people are statutory homeless, moving between friends’ sofas without anywhere permanent to stay. These people are the hidden homeless, part of a huge social problem that is all too easy to ignore.
In Nottingham, some homeless households – many with dependent children – wait for years in temporary accommodation. Mark and his two children are one such family, currently living in a ‘temporary’ flat and bidding for council accommodation. “We’re hoping to move into a house one day as it’d be nicer for the kids. I’m working now but private renting is expensive, and it’s difficult to find a landlord who’ll be happy to take a family with kids but without the money for a deposit, and no guarantor. Council housing is so much better because you have a protected tenancy so it’s a longer term solution.”
The University of Nottingham is somewhat socially exclusive; The Times ranked us in the Top 10 ‘Most Middle Class Universities’ (it’s a shame we’re not scoring so highly on other counts). It’s fair to say that many people will attach a negative stigma to council housing or estates without perhaps having any experience of living in, or even knowing people who live in, those areas. And yet outside of our upper-middle class microcosm, there are over 9000 households in Nottingham, like Mark and his children, on the waiting list for social housing. Many more are unable to access even the waiting list; those who would love to be able to live in the very places the upper-middle class disparage as dens of ASBOs and knife crime. The lower rent, the council’s willingness to accept tenants on Housing Benefit, the protected tenant status (most private landlords are able to evict at two months notice at any time, a threat which is removed by a protected tenancy), and the likelihood of a longer-term rental agreement are all attractive factors of social housing.
Quite often the homeless people who stay in temporary accommodation for a longer time are people who are unable to live independently: people with mental health problems or drug and alcohol addicts. In some cases hostel places are reserved for these ‘at risk’ individuals, meaning that some homeless people may be turned away even if there is an available bed. This in turn leads to hostels becoming overwhelmed by drug addicts or mentally ill people, which sometimes leads to a negative and dangerous environment. Joanne, a former heroin addict, left her hostel after finding it too difficult to stay off drugs when surrounded by current users. She sleeps on friends’ sofas or floors and sometimes sleeps rough, but doesn’t know what else she can do. “You can’t get work without a permanent address. I can’t afford a place unless I get a job. I know I’ve made bad choices in the past but now I feel like I’ve been trapped by them.”
Few people realise that there is such a thing as a ‘Homeless Person’s Application’ – this is not, of course, an application to become homeless, but to be seen as legitimately homeless by the local authority in order to be granted the right to social housing. Joanne, for example, would be seen as intentionally homeless as she left her hostel accommodation voluntarily. You would also be seen as intentionally homeless if you had been evicted due to non-payment of rent. Local authorities prioritise the places available in temporary accommodation in accordance to the need or vulnerability of the applicant. As a result people who do not fit these criteria (usually healthy single people) can end up becoming invisible; they might choose to sleep on sofas or squat in empty properties. Therefore although homelessness statistics have decreased, the crisis of homelessness is not so easily solved.
This can also lead to an assumption that if a person is not an addict, or mentally ill, they are ‘normal’ and therefore at fault and society has no responsibility to provide for them. The prioritisation of the most vulnerable has been described as “limited social justice”, as although the most needy are cared for, a different socially excluded group is ignored and left to find their own way out of the situation – a challenge that often proves impossible. It might be easy to assume that it is a minority of people who find themselves homeless without finance enough to organise renting in the private sector; it is a minority, of course, but a sizeable one. More than two million people in the UK are struggling to pay the rent or mortgage. After the fall in house prices over the past few years, many people who bought in 2007 found themselves almost immediately in negative equity when the housing bubble burst.
Many people do not have a safety net of extended family or friends to go to for financial help in order to access private renting if they are evicted or their home is repossessed. These aren’t just people from very poor backgrounds; Sharon Batey, Manager of Nottinghamshire Housing Advice service, explains that, “The most common reason for people becoming homeless is some major life changing event, like an illness, a relationship breakdown, or bereavement. Things like that affect someone’s ability to go out and earn money, or sort out their finances… I’ve been with this organisation since 1997 and in that time I can honestly say that I’ve seen very few people who have deliberately done something that’s caused them to become homeless.”
She remembers one couple who led a normal and stable life with their three children until their youngest son unexpectedly died. The stress and trauma of this event proved too much for their relationship; the mother began drinking heavily, and eventually the father left. She had lost her job and was unable to keep up with the rent, and didn’t know that she was eligible for benefits which could have helped out. She came to Nottinghamshire Housing Advice as she was due to be evicted from her privately rented property and while the support workers were able to apply to court to get a suspension on her eviction, it’s clear in this kind of situation that a holistic approach is needed. In Nottingham there are support agencies such as Framework, which offer a wide range of services, from housing to support services for vulnerable people. With the support of various agencies, the woman in question was able to keep her home and organise a repayment plan for her rent arrears, apply for the benefits she was entitled to, and most crucially get help with caring for her children and fighting her alcoholism.
Batey continued, “On a purely personal level it grieves me that I see empty properties when there are people crying out for houses… The housing crisis is particularly relevant in Nottinghamshire. There are far more people on waiting lists than there is accommodation available.” Due to the shortage in social housing, the local authorities must prioritise housing for vulnerable people, such as those with disabilities, or families with young children. Not only does this limit housing available for those who do not fall into these brackets, but it concentrates large numbers of people with severe economic, social and health problems in the same area, much like temporary housing does but on a larger scale. Batey commented that areas which have a mix of social and private properties generally have fewer social problems – mixing the types of housing is also a step towards combating the stigma attached to social housing, whereas segregating council houses in ghetto-like estates simply exacerbates existing social problems and intensifies prejudices from those outside the estates.
“Essentially we’re all just two events away from homelessness,” said Batey. This may be hard to imagine for some people, but it really can happen to anyone and that’s why it’s so vital that these people who become homeless have an adequate support network in place to assist them.
However, there is no chance that the sector will be able to expand any time soon. Supporting People is the government programme for funding and monitoring housing-related support services, and they have been instructed that there need to be savings of £4.5 million implemented in the city by 2011. The vast majority of expenditure goes on temporary accommodation because it is expensive to run, and so this area is likely to be hit hard. Currently the plan is to replace temporary supported accommodation (for people who find it hard to live independently) with floating support networks; however, support workers I spoke to voiced concerns that this would not be sufficient, and that the whole sector would face a backlash when the decreased support inevitably failed to keep people in command of their lives.
While the government’s current priority is cutting the deficit, it’s important to remember that failing to provide for the least fortunate has negative effects across society as a whole. Statistics consistently show that homelessness is lowest in countries with lower levels of inequality – not necessarily countries with less poor people, simply more equality overall.
One of the main problems facing those ‘statutory homeless’ people in Nottingham, those stuck in between a home and the street, is the shortage of social housing. The benefits of social housing, mentioned before, are indispensable for many people in the UK, and there are thousands more who also hope to benefit from it. However, the social housing stock was greatly diminished under the ‘right to buy’ scheme of the 80s and has not increased enough since then to keep up with demand. Essentially huge changes are needed in order to address the underlying problems: two important steps toward this would a greater stock of council housing, and stronger rights to tenants across the rental sector.
In the UK, home ownership is viewed as very important; a cultural shift away from this, towards acceptance of long-term renting, would vastly alter the housing situation. Some have seen the recent decrease in home ownership as a worrying trend (currently 68% of households, down from 71% in 2003). However, in Germany, for example, just 43% of the population own their homes; instead many people stay in one rented property on long-term leases. In Sweden, home ownership rates are even lower at just 38%. While this might be bad news for mortgage companies, Sweden has less homelessness than the UK; ‘highly pressurised’ housing markets are likely to generate more homelessness. If renting can be a viable long-term option, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For now, most of the ‘hidden’ homeless of Nottingham will continue to see social housing as their only route to a more permanently settled way of life. However, the pressure the sector is currently under, combined with the urgency of making millions of pounds worth of cuts before 2011, indicates that things are unlikely to look up any time soon. Just because there are less homeless people on the street than there were a decade ago doesn’t mean that the more fortunate amongst us – and those holding power – can forget about the people living in poverty and uncertainty.