Homelessness continues to be a growing problem in the UK. According to the National Audit Office 3,569 people were sleeping on the streets last year compared to 1,768 in 2010. During that time the average number of households accepted as homeless has increased from 2.03 to 2.40 per 1,000. Despite the Government’s commitment to consider options to prevent more people from becoming homeless no new legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech.
For far too long homelessness legislation in England has failed to provide single people and childless couples with the necessary support to resolve their homelessness. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 defined which groups of homeless people were considered to have a “priority need” and therefore might be owed a statutory duty to be secured accommodation by local authorities. This created a clear and longstanding distinction between those defined as “priority need” (largely families with dependent children) and those who are not (predominately single people, including couples without dependent children). The 1996 Housing Act developed the meaning of “priority need” to include a pregnant woman; dependent children; someone vulnerable as a result of old age; mental illness, handicap or physical disability as well as those made homeless or threatened with homelessness as a result of an emergency such as a flood, fire or other disaster. This was expanded further in 2002 to encompass homeless applicants who are aged 16 and 17 years old and not owed any duty as a child in care or a care leaver under 21 years old as well as a person vulnerable as a result of leaving prison or vulnerable as a result of fleeing domestic violence.
Policymakers in Scotland and Wales have firmly recongised the fact that turning away homeless people who are not considered a “priority” under the law is devastating to many individuals and have provided much needed additional funding for local authorities. In 2012 Scotland scrapped “priority need” rules placing a duty on local authorities to find permanent accommodation for all applicants who are unintentionally homeless or threatened with homelessness. Meanwhile Wales has introduced a duty on local authorities to help secure accommodation for all applicants assessed as homeless for a period of 56 days. As a result homelessness has dropped in Scotland and recent official figures for Wales show a 67% decrease in homelessness in the last nine months.
In order to reduce homelessness in England it is imperative that a stronger duty is placed on local authorities to help to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants regardless of priority need status as the reality is that anyone sleeping on the streets is vulnerable. As it stands the legal entitlements for single homeless people remain inadequate and many will still be turned away from help.
Last year, when talking about the importance of a “One Nation” Government the Prime Minister said:
“Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your background, whatever stage of life you are at, I believe this government can help you fulfil your aspirations. And let me be clear, when I say whoever you are, I mean it.”
At the moment too many of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society remain in great need with no local authority support. The Government must act now to ensure that these people are able to fulfil their aspirations in a life removed from rough sleeping.
A shortened version of this piece was first published in the Big Issue, accessible here.